Monday, May 31, 2010

"Happy" Memorial Day? Well, a good weekend anyway.

Our friend Carl was telling us about his father's experience under the waters of Pearl Harbor the morning of December 7, 1941. He was in his bunk (above water) when the ship started to sink. I'm sure it was terrifying when the water level rose above his port-hole, and it soon became obvious that this would be the only way out. He barely fit through the port-hole after stripping completely naked; his roommate could not.

There was nothing to do for it, so he swam up to find burning fuel on the surface of the water. Eventually he found a ship that wasn't sinking, and he climbed onto the deck. A Marine quickly gave him his pants. "You need these more than I do."

I've heard many other stories; that one I remember.

Coyote Creek Trail

Saturday morning, a bunch of us met at Galveston and Tully Roads in San Jose, where the Coyote Creek Trail starts (map). We checked tire pressures, prayed briefly, and set out down the trail.

But trouble soon followed. About 2½ miles in, one of us lost his balance while trying to re-mount his bicycle. His eyelid and eyebrow were bleeding. A fast-thinking young man rode his bike back to the starting point and fetched his car. Bikes were loaded up and he drove off with the injured guy (and one more). The rest of us continued on down the trail, riding quite carefully.

There are some gorgeous photos on this page, but I'll summarize by saying that the trail is quite diverse, going through parks, golf courses, residential areas, forest... it runs right next to a power substation. There are bridges. The trail is paved but could stand some repairs (the state budget crisis may have something to do with that).

We stopped for lunch at "Metcalf Park" (please see this map (PDF), which starts about 4 miles from where we did), and eventually got as far as the "Eucalyptus Rest Area" before heading back. Some of the grades are steep for inexperienced riders, but they are also short -- unlike, say, taking Woodside-La Honda Road up to Skyline. If you're accustomed to your bike and have a good breakfast, you probably can do this ride if you take your time. What makes it tiring is trying to ride it fast.

Marin Headlands

That was Saturday. Sunday after church, the lovely Carol and I drove up to San Francisco, where we picked up our friend Barbara (who we've known at least since Japan). We were headed up to Audubon Canyon Ranch but had lost track of our directions, so Carol asked Barbara to look up directions. Lucky thing, too, as it's closed on weekends! So we decided to head for the Marin Headlands in the Golden Gate NRA.

Traffic heading toward the Golden Gate Bridge was horrendous; everyone and his dog seemed to be heading up that way. A stalled car blocked one lane in a tunnel, but traffic didn't really improve after that.

Once on the bridge, traffic flowed, but bunched up near the first off-ramp (a vista point); we took Alexander Street and went right. In retrospect this was a good move, although a 5-minute wait (there's a one-way tunnel on Bunker) wasn't fun for the driver, who was really wanting to use a rest-room! We came to a fork in the road: beach right, lighthouse straight ahead. I read the sign aloud, asking for advice. Barbara sang out, "Lighthouse!" and so we went.

The visitor center was a welcome sight; we grabbed a map and made our plans: lunch just up the road (the map showed picnic tables), then a short (0.2 mile) trail to the beach. Which beach? The map didn't say. There were gorgeous views of the bridge and the bay and the City by the Bay from the picnic tables. It was perfect.

After lunch we continued on the one-way road and found the trailhead that led to "South Rodeo Beach." We saw some poison oak on the trail, but it's not hard to avoid. The trail is not wheelchair-accessible; some grabbing and big steps are needed near the end.

Since so few of you actually read this blog, I'm not afraid of letting the secret out: this is much nicer than the big stretch of "Rodeo Beach" a few hundred yards north. The South Rodeo Beach is quieter, with fewer people and much more interesting landforms.

On our drive out, we took a right turn from Bunker onto McCullough Road. The sign says "no right turn" but it means "if you're a bus or an RV". The views from McCullough are breathtaking, and we stopped for some more photos. The drive back to Barbara's went fine, but we were astonished at the northbound traffic -- it was like a parking lot from the 19th Avenue exit, through the Presidio and Golden Gate Park.

Memorial Day

We had breakfast out, the lovely Carol and I. Then I took her car out in search of some wood chips or something for the side-yard (a weed garden). I was thinking of Home Depot, but then decided to try Lyngsø. Fortunately I had just beaten the crowd! I picked up a roll of weed-cloth (4′x50′), and read the instructions: use three inches of tan-bark or whatever for weed control. I strolled up to the counter, where I asked the man what I should put on top of the weed-cloth.

"What do you want to look at?" he asked. I didn't, so he suggested "mocha chip." This isn't chocolate-flavored coffee chips; it's a dark mulch. 3" covering about 150 square feet... I needed 1½ cubic yards. He urged me to rent one of their trucks, so I did. Automatic transmission, electric windows, yow! Our neighbor helped me unload (I didn't know about unlocking the gate before trying to dump the stuff in my driveway).

After returning their truck, I drove back home and began hauling the stuff into the side-yard. I lost my race with the sun -- the shade was gone by the time I was half-way through. But our temperature today didn't even get to 80° and eventually we got some clouds.

And I did finish eventually, after about 30? loads with the small wheelbarrow. A desire accomplished -- it was sweet to the soul.

What does it take to really change? (part deux)

I've been thinking more about this, and the lovely Carol mentioned something we must remember: the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Good point! Immediately some New Testament verses came to mind -- we can have a new life because of Christ's resurrection (Romans 6:4), we'll be saved if we believe that God raised Jesus from the dead (Romans 10:9), our lowly body will be made like his glorious body (Philippians 3:20). That he was put to death for our sins and raised to life for our justification (Romans 4:25) is also relevant.

Without the forgiveness of sins and the hope of resurrection, it's -- well, it's probably an exaggeration to say that we're reduced to psychological self-help, but really, if we forget the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus, aren't we just getting back onto the self-improvement treadmill?

And all the insights we get from psychology and sociology and introspection, all the brilliant words we hear at conferences and read in books and articles -- all of this stuff may be terrific, but as Paul writes, "If the dead are not raised, Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die" (1 Corinthians 15:32, quoting Isaiah).

So, besides the earnest desire and commitment to change (which I mentioned earlier) we at least need to keep in view the bounteous grace and mercy of our Lord, who though he was rich became poor for our sake (2 Cor. 8:9) --

and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.
Ephesians 1:19-23
If we forget to remember these things, our self-improvement efforts are doomed. Did not our Lord say, "apart from me you can do nothing"?

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Ever have one of those days?

You know, you go into a store, and most of the lights are off so you know it's a power failure, and just as you're wondering if you can pay at the electronic cash register, the lights turn back on. "Thank you, Lord!" you say, "You answered my unspoken prayer."

Then you wake up.

You get on your bike and take a leisurely ride to the train station. Your cough hasn't gone away quite yet, but it doesn't bother you as you pedal away. You get there in plenty of time; the sun is shining, the trains aren't delayed, the "Wunnerful" conductor welcomes you aboard then passes the mike to a schoolgirl. "Next stop, Palo Alto," she says.

And you can't stop the feeling that it's going to be a great day.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

What does it take to really change?

The lovely Carol was reading from a magazine:
Ray was an elder.... Ray sat in the third row... right on the end, and he took copious notes in his well-worn Bible, which was heavily underlined and marked. You need to know, Ray knew the Bible better than God. But here's the deal about Ray, and I realized this even when I was twelve: Ray was a mean guy.

Ray was a really crabby guy, and everyone in the church knew. Sadly, among all the things people knew about Ray, the other thing they all knew was that Ray would never change.

from "Can Change Really Happen?" by Dave Johnson
Conversations 8:1 (spring/summer 2010), p. 34
I'm sorry to say that there are too many of us that fit this description. I'm not talking about mean and crabby people in particular, but I mean people who aren't going to change. At least not for a while.

She went on reading, ticking off a couple of purported answers to the question of "How do we become the kind of people who are working out (Ph’p 2:12-13) into our living the life of God we have?" (35):

  • small groups
  • spiritual disciplines
but of course it's true that one can do that stuff and still never change. What else is needed? she asked me.

Following the old joke about how many therapists it takes to change a light bulb -- just one, but the light bulb has to want to be changed -- that's basically what I said. In other words, those purported answers are bogus. No, not bogus; they're answers to a different question, viz.,

If we are working out into our living the life of God we have, what are some things that can help us do that?
Well, of course we want to change. Or do we? How high is that priority in my life? Am I more interested in image management -- making myself look good (or so I think) to myself or others? Or do I really want to become more like Jesus?

In John 5, Jesus asks a crippled man, "Do you want to get better?" The man never actually answers, but talks instead about being a victim. So yes, he does want to get better, but "getting better" isn't a laser-like focus in his life; it's one of many fireflies swarming about him.

I think that what we need -- what I need -- is an earnest desire to be transformed (as Paul tells us in Romans 12:2), a willingness to see my own faults and to repent of them, a faith that God will fulfill his promise (that is, he rewards those who seek him -- Hebrews 11:6). If I have those things, then putting myself in the way of God's grace will help me grow and change as he wants me to. If a seed is alive, then moisture and temperature, etc., will help it grow.

But if a seed is dead, moisture and warmth will just bring rot. So if "Ray" or I don't want to change, if we aren't willing to repent of our sins, then small groups and "spiritual disciplines" will be just so much Pharisaism for us -- they'll do us as much good as the moisture and warmth do for a dead seed.

Merton talks about this in his chapter on Sincerity in "No Man Is an Island"; more on that another time.

Monday, May 24, 2010


So I get ready to write a post and blogger has an announcement that I can make money by linking to amazon. It can be easier to look stuff up on, link to stuff on, and if you my reader buys stuff on, there'll be a kickback! Yow! Early retirement here I come!?

Or not.

So maybe you'll think I'm silly, but it seems kinda tacky to say "oh yeah, here's a cool book, and they'll give me money if you click through and buy it." So... no thank you, amazon.

So if you click on a link here, will probably know that you came from here, but I don't think it'll give 'em the kind of info that facebook gave when I clicked on one of their links (image at right). And I'm certainly not taking any money from them to refer you there. I do like (we spend quite a bit of money there) and it's easy to create a link to any book they have, but I'm not making money off of you when you buy stuff from them.

Just thought you'd like to know.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

"Free wi-fi" or not

So here's a pot-hole on the information highway -- restaurants and fast-food joints that advertise free wi-fi, but you can't do what you need to do. Herewith a very short list of my experiences locally.
  • Peet's: GOOD
    Buy a cup at Peet's Redwood City (on Broadway near the railroad tracks) and you get a coupon with a passcode good for an hour's usage on their wifi. Their firewall allows me out to ssh and VPN to the office. An hour is all I need, since the next train arrives within an hour.
  • Denny's: SPOTTY
    They want you to register, and it used to work fine. But lately in Redwood City (Broadway at Woodside) there's signal but no connection outside the building. I mean, I get an IP address on en1 (and it's not a 169.254 address either), but there's no address resolution. I asked our waitress about this (not about resolv.conf, just about "internet") but no joy.

    UPDATE 29-June-2010: Working now!

  • McDonald's: BAD
    At least in Menlo Park (El Camino at Santa Cruz) I can resolve addresses, but the only addresses that work seem to be * I can't read or, and when I try to ssh to my ISP, another website, the office (etc) the connections show SYN_SENT but that's it. According to their wifi page these things are all supposed to work. But not here and not now.
  • City of Mountain View (Google wi-fi) GOOD if you can get it.
    This isn't a fast-food joint or a restaurant, but here's my experience. Reception isn't so good on this 15" powerbook (aluminum), so I can't always connect. When I can, it lets me talk to my ISP and to the office (ssh tunnel). But most of the time I can't.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Website secrets! Extracting lists keyed off a selection widget

The lovely Carol wanted to get a list of the staff at our church for a prayer-related event, so she went to the website to find a page with a selection widget -- you can choose a department and see its staff. Since she wanted the list to be organized by department, one could imagine selecting each department in turn, then using the mouse to snarf'n'barf the staff names for the list. Two problems with that:
  • For some reason or another, we can't "select" the names on those pages with the mouse. I suspect javascript, but can't really tell.
  • No fewer than twenty (20) departments!
I don't want to defend the number of departments here; what I do want to do is share how I overcame all of that to produce the list that the lovely Carol wanted to facilitate the prayer meeting.

First, I wanted to get the source of the overall staff page; I used lynx -dump -source but wget will probably do if you don't have lynx. The selection widget had a single very long line of the form

<select name="field_group_xyz" class="form-select" id="edit-field-group-xyz" > <option value="All" selected="selected">&lt;Any&gt;</option><option value="123">Algebra</option><option value="456">Analytic Geometry</option><option value="789">Hilbert&#39;s Tenth Problem</option> [...lots more...] </select>
(I changed the numbers and words because I want to show the technique, rather than our church's actual department names and codes.) Here's that line reformatted:
<select name="field_group_xyz" class="form-select" id="edit-field-group-xyz" > 
    <option value="All" selected="selected">&lt;Any&gt;</option> 
    <option value="123">Algebra</option> 
    <option value="456">Analytic Geometry</option> 
    <option value="789">Hilbert&#39;s Tenth Problem</option> 
    [...lots more...]
A couple of observations: first, we have "nice" department names like "Algebra"; we have two- and even three-word department names. Then there's "Hilbert&#39;s Tenth Problem" -- what's with "&#39;"? Well, that's just an HTML character code -- it's an apostrophe. More on that later.

Now from playing with the selection widget, I found that when I selected the "Algebra" department in the pull-down, I got so I concluded that one could simply append the department code to "field_group_nid=" to get its staff list.

This was good; I could write a loop that would grab the various department names (Algebra, Analytic Geometry, etc.) and print those out, then do whatever processing I needed on the corresponding departmental staff pages. I didn't want the "Any" page so I got rid of that using "grep -v Any". So here's the beginning of our answer:

lynx -dump -source $STAFFURL | grep -m1 "<select" staff.html | tr '/' '
' | grep -F value= | grep -v Any 
A word about that funny "tr" command: I noticed that the only "/" in that line came to separate the body of each entry from the closing. To make it easy to grab each part, I wanted to separate each entry into its own line -- but I didn't care about the words "<option>" or "</option>" -- hence I just divided the line at each "/" character. The output looked like this:
option><option value="123">Algebra< 
option><option value="456">Analytic Geometry< 
option><option value="789">Hilbert&#39;s Tenth Problem< 
        [...lots more...] 
So I could pick out the value (the department code) and then, later on each line, the department name. And while I was at it, fix the funky HTML character code and just display an apostrophe, too. Something like this would do it:
  sed -e 's/<$//' -e 's/^.*value="//' -e 's/">/ /' -e 's/\&#039;/'"'/"g 
When applied to the output above, the result is this:
123 Algebra 
456 Analytic Geometry 
789 Hilbert's Tenth Problem
So we want to split the department code (e.g., 456) from the department name (e.g., "Analytic Geometry"), but the name might have 1, 2, or 3 words. How to deal with that?

Since I'm using bash, I decided to just provide two variable names to the "read" builtin. The bash manpage description of read says that the...

      first word is assigned to the first name, the second word to the 
      second name, and so on, with leftover words and their  interven- 
      ing  separators  assigned  to the last name.
So if I pipe "789 Hilbert's Tenth Problem" to "read DCODE DNAME" then I'd get $DCODE=789 and $DNAME="Hilbert's Tenth Problem". If we were writing this in Python, we could use "split" with a limit, like this:
>>> "789 Hilbert's Tenth Problem".split(" ", 1) 
['789', "Hilbert's Tenth Problem"]
Anyway, our script could print the department name (which might be multiple words), then use the code for each department to get a department page. A typical department page would include these lines:
<h3>René Descartes</h3>
<h3>H.S.M. Coxeter</h3>
-- those were the names we wanted, and the "<h3>"s appeared at the beginning of each line.

Hence, we could just look for "<h3>" at the start of each line, then take the bytes between the "<h3>" and the corresponding "</h3>" to get the names that we want. What I actually wrote was:
grep '^<h3>' | cut '-d>' -f2 | cut '-d<' -f1 | sed 's/^/        /'
The grep says to take only the lines that begin with "<h3>"; the first cut eliminates everything up to and including the first ">" on each line. The second cut deletes the "<" and everything after it. The sed inserts several " " characters at the front of each line, so the net effect would be something like this:
        René Descartes 
        H.S.M. Coxeter
Putting it all together, it looked like this:
lynx -dump -source $STAFFURL | grep -m1 "<select" staff.html | tr '/' ' 
' | grep -F value= | grep -v Any | 
  sed -e 's/<$//' -e 's/^.*value="//' -e 's/">/ /' -e 's/\&#039;/'"'/"g | 
while read DCODE DNAME; do 
    echo "$DNAME" 
    lynx -dump -source ${DEPTURL}$DCODE | 
grep '^<h3>' | cut '-d>' -f2 | cut '-d<' -f1 | sed 's/^/        /'
and the output is like
        George Boole 
        Somebody Else 
Analytic Geometry 
        René Descartes 
        H.S.M. Coxeter 
Hilbert's Tenth Problem 
        David Hilbert 
        Bertrand Russell 
        Alonzo Church 
which is just what we're after.

Well, that was fun! Useful, too. I hope you enjoyed that as much as I did. Please let me know if you have any questions.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

A good prayer, and a great one

In 1 Kings 3, King Solomon gets an astonishing offer from the Lord: At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon during the night in a dream, and God said, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.” (1 Kings 3:5, NIV). Solomon asks for wisdom and God commends him:
"I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties. So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?"

The Lord was pleased that Solomon had asked for this. So God said to him, "Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, nor have asked for the death of your enemies but for discernment in administering justice, I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart, so that there will never have been anyone like you, nor will there ever be."

from 1 Kings 3:7-12
Not a bad prayer! Looking back at Solomon's life, though, it seems that he may have done better to ask God for a heart that would remain fully commited to the Lord.

I was reminded of Solomon's prayer during today's sermon, when our pastor read a quote from William Temple:

"Pray for me, I ask you, not chiefly that I may be wise and strong... But pray for me chiefly that I may never let go of the unseen hand of the Lord Jesus...." (more here)

(Temple was Archbishop of Canterbury for a few years in the 1940s.) Solomon's prayer was good, but this one was better.

Not only was Temple's the better prayer, it's also a better model for me:

Pray for me chiefly that I may never let go of the unseen hand of the Lord Jesus and may live in daily fellowship with him.
This would be a great thing to pray for me, for your pastors and deacons and elders -- for any friend who knows the Lord. And a great thing for them to pray on your behalf, too.

Mount Pilot College -- does it really exist?

Maybe it doesn't, but according to... waitaminute... "Howard Sprague"?
"I am sorry, Mr. Cash, but we are unable to accept your rap sheet in lieu of a high school transcript."
Dr. Howard Sprague
Dean of Admissions
Mount Pilot College
Here's the thing. When we lived in Japan, I used to read Japan-related newsgroups, where Michael Cash was a frequent contributor. His signature had humorous quotes like the above, or this one:
"There was a time, Mr. Cash, when I believed you must be the most useless thing in the world. But that was before I read a Microsoft help file."

Prof. Ernest T. Bass
Mount Pilot College
I wondered about "Mount Pilot College" and I think I found the answer today, after googling "Ernest T. Bass" -- and after that quote from "Howard Sprague" I'm sure of it -- Andy Griffith! Well, let me put up a few more quotes. I have to say that Mr. Cash's quotes have brightened many a day for me. Here's another:
"Having your company forced upon me, Mr. Cash, is better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. But not by much, I assure you."
Prof. Ernest T. Bass
Mount Pilot College
"You were robbed, Mr. Cash, of your rightful place in American history. Why, with the benefit of hindsight, it is obvious to anyone that yours would have made a much better test case than Roe v. Wade." [link]
"Clowns to the left of me and jokers to the right, Mr. Cash. Clowns and jokers."

Prof. Ernest T. Bass
Mount Pilot College
"If the enjoyment of life were a Coca-Cola, Mr. Cash, your existence would be the ant poison in mine."

Prof. Ernest T. Bass
Mount Pilot College
These quotes (except the last, which I got from...?) can be found from a search for "Mount Pilot College."

Update: more Michael Cash quotes ...

...appear in google groups.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Microsoft Word vs OpenOffice paragraph indentation!

The lovely Carol was having problems with Microsoft Word compatibility, and I was called in to help. She composed her paper in OpenOffice Writer. Her paragraphs were indented, like the image on the right, and she saved it in Mi¢ro$oft Word ".doc" format. But for some reason, when MS Office opens the document, there's no indentation at all; you can't tell where one paragraph leaves off and the next begins.

I thought this would be a pretty basic kind of function; it's not exactly advanced formatting. So I asked her to save a current version of her paper and went over to her laptop, which has Microsoft Word 2004 for Mac. I opened the file, and sure enough, no indentations. Good -- I reproduced the problem. Some googling later, I found out that MS-Word actually does have paragraph styles. Cool! I modified the custom style ("Composition"), requiring a half-inch indent or so, and saved that with a different filename.

Coming back to my Linux (ubuntu 9.04) desktop, I fired up and took a look at the version modified by MS Word. The indentation looked just right. So far so good. Then I looked at her original version -- no indentation. What??

I went back to her computer, selected an indented paragraph, and in the Styles and Formatting menu, right-clicked on "Composition" (the paragraph style), selected "Modify", and discovered... what you see at left.

Mystery solved: The issue was the "Automatic" first line indentation. Uncheck "Automatic", put a real value in for first line indent (0.39 inches maybe?), and Microsoft Word also thinks that you've got indentation.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

How to Overcome Envy

(Impatient? Jump to the point.)
We had a great time at the Orange County Christian Writers (OCCWF) conference May 1.

Something I really liked about this conference was the speakers' focus on a writer's character and his/her connection to God: purity, humility, attitude toward "success," awareness of the enemy, this sort of thing. One of our speakers said:

Best effort and a pure heart is better than a compromised message with technical excellence
One could (maybe) imagine something like that at a nonChristian writers' conference, but a workshop on writing devotionals? Not so much. And if there were a workshop on overcoming envy, I'm confident you wouldn't find the same content.

The Point

So, how do we overcome envy? When someone else achieves spectacular success, how do we stop saying things like "She won the Pulitzer at 29, I hate her"? God says not to covet (Exodus 20:17 NIV), but what's the trick to actually obeying that command? Kathy Collard Miller gave us a list in her keynote speech, which I have tried to capture here:
  1. Recognize God's sovereignty.
    What is sovereignty? Kathy quoted Swindoll as saying,
    Sovereignty means our all-wise, all-knowing God reigns in realms beyond our comprehension to bring about a plan beyond our ability to alter, hinder, or stop.
    (also quoted on p.103 of Becoming Myself; Becoming His: Living the Life God Designed for You By Kay Watson -- per Google Books)
    When we recognize that God is at work, and that he will accomplish his plan concerning us (Psalm 138:8 NASB), envy will lose some of its steam.
  2. Decide to bless others.
    Kathy suggested a prayer along these lines: “Lord, bless them. Give them many more opportunities. Expand their ministry.” This is a way of applying 2 Corinthians 10:5 -- one method we can use to "take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ" (NASB).
    This reminded me of Charles Williams's Descent Into Hell, whose anti-hero, the historian Lawrence Wentworth, reads that Aston Moffat (another historian) was honoured with knighthood. The narrator tells us:
    There was presented to him at once and clearly an opportunity for joy—casual, accidental joy, but joy. If he could not manage joy, at least he might have managed the intention of joy, or (if that also were too much) an effort toward the intention of joy... [H]e knew that the fantastic recognition would please and amuse the innocent soul of Sir Aston, not so much for himself as in some unselfish way for the honour of history. Such honours meant nothing, but they were part of the absurd dance of the world, and to be enjoyed as such. Wentworth knew he could share that pleasure. He could enjoy....
    (page 80)
    But Wentworth refuses to enjoy; instead he gets angry. This is part of his quest for hell. If that's where someone wants to go, Descent Into Hell is a good case study. I found it more accessible than some of his other novels. But it is scary and thus instructive.
  3. Remember that we each have a role, and that each role is essential.
    The Apostle Paul talked quite about this in 1 Corinthians 12; here's verse 17 from the NIV: "If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?" There is no "appendix" in the body of Christ!
  4. Pass it on.
    I don't remember what she meant by that, but I'll add on my usual:
  5. (Collin's addition)
    Do the above for 20-30 years and repeat as needed.
    (The "repeat as needed" also appears in my essays on overcoming anger and overcoming anxiety.)
It probably goes without saying that we can count our blessings, and also remember that the lifestyles of the rich and famous aren't all they're cracked up to be. Nicholas Sparks had a spectacular smash hit on his first novel, but he also had family difficulties (details in Three Weeks with My Brother -- I remember at least one of his parents died, and one of his kids was diagnosed with a learning disability).

The lovely Carol mentioned something else: that it's good to remember that all good things are gifts from God. A good idea.

One more thing: when we fail, it's really important to remember that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ (Romans 8:1). Our identity and security are not based on our own merit, but rather on the merit of the one who died for us and rose again. Thanks be to God!

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Coincidentally, it's the National Day of Prayer

"God loves us, and he knows what we need before we ask, so is it important that we ask for things?"

I was walking with a friend after lunch the other day, and we were talking about, well, prayer. It seemed to him that people treated prayer like a vending machine; they have a list of things they want, and in prayer they read it off. I allowed as God didn't need to be informed about our needs, but like me with my children, he might want to be asked.

This reminded me of something I heard about valid reasons for prayer (there are only two). One was something about getting closer to God, and the other was about getting me to accept God's will. My friend liked this thought.

But we do ask for things we want, don't we? Does that fit with the two valid reasons to pray? A few thoughts:

  • I have to remember to think about God, and my relationship with him, in order to ask.
  • In asking I recognize that I'm not self-sufficient.
  • When I ask I accept that he may say "No" -- hence I'm surrendering to his will.
  • I affirm that he has the power to give me my desire or to deny it; I recognize his authority.
  • As I pray, I say with my body that it's worth my while to talk with God.
  • I believe God is good when I ask him for what I need.
So we do ask, but we ask with surrendered hearts -- not like a vending machine.

He described how in his small group, there's a prayer request ritual where people offer their laundry lists requests -- typically something about exams or oral presentations or interviews -- that is, the sort of thing that triggered the "vending machine" feeling.

I think that once a person -- a group, rather -- gets in the habit of this sort of prayer, it becomes part of that group's culture. Last week the prayer requests were like this, so that must be what people expect, goes the thinking. If we want that to change, what could we do? One thought is to consciously ask for something different.

Could you pray for me that this week, when I'm feeling pressure because of a deadline or whatever, that I would remember God's great love, that I would remember to pray, that I would remember that I'm a citizen of heaven, and that's where my future lies? I don't want to come back next week and tell you that I worried rather than prayed, or that I was full of anxiety and hurry rather than faith and hope.
To be honest, many of the things I pray for will make no difference a year from now. But if I go through weeks at a time where I trust and pray and remember who I belong to... that'll make a big difference.

As I thought back on this conversation, I remembered one other thing about prayer. Jesus said in John 16:24, "Ask and you will receive, that your joy may be made full." What things, if I pray and receive, will make my joy full? I want to pray and ask God for those things. Not (only) because they might make my joy full, but also because in asking for such things, that will bring my heart closer to God, and help me to accept his will.

If I can do that at least part of the time in the coming days, I'll count them a roaring success. And to God be the glory!