Monday, December 31, 2012

Why Florida citrus fruit tastes so bad, and why I'm so slow

The elder daughter says it's because (the citrus I mean, not me) oranges and the like ripen in the cold. This also explains why oranges are never going to be a cash crop in Hawaii.

On the second subject, which reminds me of a meeting at work which I missed, I just realized that 1 John 1:8-10 explains verses 6 and 7. Here's what I mean:

6If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. 7But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. 8If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.
1 John 1:6-10
Verses 6-7 talk about walking in the light, and although I've been reading this chapter many times over the past 30 years (I memorized 1 John 1:9 in 1978) it didn't hit me that the phrase "walk in the light" is explained by verses 9-10. They're parallel passages.
  • If we walk in the darkness, we lie(6) ↔ If we claim to be without sin we deceive ourselves(8)
  • If we walk in the light, we're purified from sin(7) ↔ If we confess our sins, he will purify us(9)
Obvious, right? How did I miss it all these years? Or am I just having a middle-aged moment (or millennium) and had I simply forgotten it?

Either way, I'm glad to know (and I'll probably remember it for the rest of the week at least) that 1 John 1:6-7 is explained immediately by the following verses.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Posting a Keep Out! sign in the attic

The photo at left was taken from my attic. That's the inside of a 9"-diameter vent; I can't tell what sort of wasp or hornet or bee that slightly-used house belongs to.

Here's another picture (click for larger image); it's not very well focused but you can see a little more. I don't know much about wasps or hornets or other flying things with stings, but I do know this: I don't want them in my attic. I especially don't want them colonizing other nice spots in the attic.

In that second photo you can see that the opening in the top of the vent is rather large. I'll say it's big enough for a small rat to climb through. Now the inside surface of the vent is rather slippery, and I wouldn't fancy trying to climb it myself, if I were a rat's size. But that wouldn't stop a mouse or rat from falling in and looking around. And finding some other places to build a nest.

I had some ½" wire mesh—that would keep mice and rats out. I also had some fine plastic screen; that would keep the insects out. I tracked those supplies down, and also some tin-snips for the wire mesh, an X-acto™ knife for the plastic screen, and a staple gun (with enough ½" staples).

Back in the attic, I held the wire mesh up to the hole to determine the shape and size to cut. The tin-snips worked reasonably well. Then, because I have lots and lots of plastic screen, I folded it over the wire mesh and cut it to size with the knife.

Now I had an assembly of two thicknesses of fine plastic screen around one of ½" wire mesh; it was also less hazardous to carry the assembly, because the sharp ends of the wire were covered. Fortunately there was enough room to squeeze into the spot below the vent. Then I started stapling.

You can see the result at right. If you look carefully you may notice that the hornet's nest is gone. When I drove the first staple in, the nest dropped down onto the screens.

I waited. No buzzing sounds. Or wings. Or stingers.

I reached around an unattached edge and gingerly picked up the abandoned (I hoped) nest. What to do with it? I fed it through one of the gaps in the vent. It fell through the opening and dropped onto the roof.

With that disposed of, I applied a half-dozen more staples.

Posted: Keep out! No trespassing!

Things not to do when installing a water heater: a list

  1. Buy a water heater installation kit, you know, the package with two water hoses (one cold, one hot) and a gas supply hose, and pipe-thread tape (which I heard is not actually “Teflon® tape”)
    • The gas supply hose might have the wrong gender(s).
    • The water hoses might be too short or too long.
    But it's OK to buy the kit if you have determined that all will fit.
  2. Waste “teflon tape” on threads that don't need it
    • the water hoses don't need it because the connection is secured by pressure, not by the threads.
    • most of the gas hoses don't need it either
  3. Put white “teflon tape” on gas-pipe threads that do need it
    • You can find dire warnings on the ’net about doing this. Use pipe dope instead.
  4. Use a drain pan that isn't big enough to catch any possible dripping when your new water heater starts leaking someday.
    • Because it will.
How do I know not to do these things? Three guesses…

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Improving quality of a multi-component system

Suppose you have several product testing teams -- let's call them the "A", "B", "C", "D" [etc] teams.

Suppose each testing team focuses primarily on testing "their" component, but teams can also find defects in other components, so for example the "A" team mainly tests the "A" component, but they might happen to find a problem in the "B" component.

The "A" testing team has a manager, who is probably being rated on how well the "A" team is finding defects in the "A" component. The "B" test manager is rated on how well the "B" team finds defects in the "B" component. And so on.

Each manager will tend to say "I want the bugs in our component to be found by us, so whenever those other turkeys find bugs in our component, you guys explain to me why they found it and we didn't."

What will happen then? Whenever the "B" team finds a bug in the "C" component, say, the "C" team will be motivated to duplicate the portion of "B"'s tests that found the "C bug," and they will spend time on this that they could have spent writing new tests.

So here's a puzzle: how to put a stop to this behavior? Because if things go on like this, the "C" team will waste a bunch of time

  • writing reports for their manager (who is also in a lousy position) explaining why the "B" team found bugs in the "C" component, and
  • duplicating parts of the "B" tests.
In the worst case, everybody will copy everybody else's tests, which means the same tests will be run multiple times, rather than writing and running different tests. How does this improve product quality? (Really, the "C" team should be thinking of other ways to test the "C" component, and the system for that matter, rather than duplicating all the "B" tests that happened to find some "C" bug.)

Here's what needs to happen: The QA Director or VP needs to be told that this nonsense is going on, and they need to put a stop to this sort of internal competition. In particular, they must not ding the "C" manager if the "B" team finds a "C" bug, and so on.

I mean really, if the "B" team finds a bug in the "C" component, the "C" manager's response should not be "Grrr, we should have found that, not those turkeys"; it should be "Terrific! Let's see if we can learn anything from them and write new tests to more thoroughly test our stuff."

Because every bug found inside the company is caught before the customer hits it, and for that we should rejoice. The point of quality assurance is to assure quality of the product as seen by customers; it really shouldn't matter if the "B" team finds "C" bugs or the "D" team finds "B" bugs -- so long as we find and fix the bugs before they get to the customer.

When people don’t stay long on your team

In a conversation that hasn’t happened, I chatted with someone about the team he manages.

“People don’t stay on the team for long,” he says. The team is staffed entirely by volunteers who want to support the team’s purposes, which for purposes of this short essay I’ll describe as “helping people grow.”

Why might people not want to be on this team long? Is it because they don’t really understand what the team’s mission and vision are? That’s possible.

Another possibility is that the work is too difficult—either absolutely (Just Too Much Work) or relative to the results they can see (i.e., “What is the larger organization getting for all this effort I’m putting in?”).

Or there may be something about team dynamics: is the team hard to get along with, is there too much criticism and not enough encouragement for new members’ work? Is the leader hard to get along with?

Now that I think of it, I know of at least two teams with long-term (multi-year) recruiting challenges. Let’s call one of them the “G Team”; it’s hard to get people interested in joining this team. It’s kind of nerdy, to tell you the truth. I was on the team for a while, but then other responsibilities took me away from it. Today it’s still hard to get people to sign up for it. Once people do, though, they seem to stick with it, at least for a few years.

Another team, I’ll call it the “T team”, has people sign up, but they seem to stay on for a fairly short time. I’ve talked with two ex-members of the “T team”; one of them had the odd experience of showing up for a meeting and being put to work stuffing envelopes. This person left the team shortly after that meeting.

Another ex-member had a, ah, an altercation with the team leader. This ex-member apologized for their part in the unpleasantness, but the team leader never ’fessed up to theirs. As far as the leader was concerned, the issue was 100% the ex-member’s fault.

This sort of thing isn’t unique to the non-profit or volunteer world. There are some managers who have a hard time holding on to subordinates. You may have met them; some of them are like the engineer who was never wrong; some have multiple faults (hopefully your manager isn’t like Michael Wing’s composite anti-manager “Burt”), some just work in awful organizations.

But if you’re leading a team of volunteers, or managing a group of employees, and you’ve got high turnover (you get to define the term), you might want to look in the mirror. Some questions to ask (and not ask):

  • How have I solicited input from the team about my leadership style, my strengths and weaknesses, things I could change? And how have I responded to that feedback?
  • How do I show each team member that their efforts are important? How willing am I to delegate decisions (rather than tasks)? And if they decide something in a way other than I would have, how often have I overridden their decision?
  • How often do I give direct, specific encouragements to my team members? The “specific” part is really important. “You’re great” is nice, but it could be insincere. And it could sound insincere. Better to find something they’re doing right and making a sincere and appropriate affirmation about that: “Thank you for putting in the extra effort to find those details supporting our plan; that really improves our chances...” or something like this, is much more powerful.
  • When a team member does something I don’t like, how often do I to tell them, vs complaining to someone else? And if I tell them, do I do that in a punishing or a non-punishing way?
  • How readily do I admit my own mistakes, misjudgments, failures, to my team?
  • Don’t ask: Why are you leaving? (And don’t ask HR what was said in the exit interview, either, if there was one.) Really. An employee leaving the firm knows there’s no percentage in saying anything negative about their ex-manager. And in the non-profit world, what’s the point of saying anything negative to you? If they thought you would/could change, wouldn’t they have said it earlier?
  • When was the last time I showed concern for each team member’s personal or emotional life?

Saturday, November 03, 2012

The best thing in the world

It happened at lunch: “Tim” caught the vision. What captured him was the hope that “Whenever someone sees me, they see Christ in me.” We were looking at Deepening Our Prayer by Adele Gonzales (link), where an exercise encouraged us to consider 2 Corinthians 3:18:
And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
“Bill” pointed out that the verse says that we all reflect the Lord’s glory; we all are being transformed into his likeness. This put me in mind of Genesis 39:3, which was in a recent sermon on the “With God” life: “[Joseph’s] master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord caused all that he did to prosper.”

Joseph, as you may know, was sold into slavery, but the Lord was with him. Though he was a slave, he didn’t despair; he pursued his tasks with intelligence and energy. And the text doesn’t say his master “saw that Joseph was intelligent and energetic”; it says he “saw that the Lord was with Joseph.” What was it about Joseph, I wondered, that his master saw the Lord was with him? How would I have to change so my boss would see the Lord is with me, rather than seeing my talents or whatever?

At our church, we’ve also been praying a shortened version of a prayer of St. Patrick:

I arise today through a mighty strength, the blessing of the Trinity:
God’s strength to pilot me,
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me
… and so on
I recently read a longer version which includes these lines:
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
which I take to mean “may all who see me see Christ in me; and may my words reflect Christ in me.”

It was somewhere in this discussion that Tim’s whole face lit up. The idea really captured him—the idea of being so much like Christ that everyone who sees him would see Christ in him. And rightly so!

Lunch with Tim and Bill was a high point of my week: it’s a joy being with brothers in Christ who remind me how magnificent God’s promises are and who share my joy in partaking of his goodness. It’s the best thing in the world.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Collin reads the November 2012 California ballot propositions

The state ballot pamphlet came the other day, and here's my whack at November's propositions.
  1. Temporary taxes to fund education…: YES

    This measure increases taxes on those who can certainly afford to pay them, to relieve the burden on those who can't afford an education -- and we as a state can't afford to destroy the dream of the UC and CSU systems. For more on this, google the "price of civilization" (with or without quotes).

  2. State budget. State and local government. Initiative constitutional amendment…: NO

    I was in favor of this until I heard the league of women voters were against it. Their argument makes sense to me: the bill has many flaws and that such minute details don't belong in the constitution.

  3. Political contributions by payroll deduction…: NO

    This would tilt the balance of power even more toward the rich and away from labor and the unions that represent them. I hate to disagree with my buddy Charles, and maybe before Citizens United I might have voted for 32. But corporations and super-PACs can raise and spend tons of money, anonymously in some cases, and this bill would make it even easier for them to crush workers.

    Sorry to sound like a Communist, and by the way I don't believe unions are all sweetness and light either. But golly, wasn't Citizens United bad enough? It's like the one side has machine-guns and we want to give them helicopter gunships, while the other side has only stone knives and slingshots.

  4. Auto insurance companies.…: YES

    Here's how I understand this, based upon the legislative analyst's summary: today, auto insurance companies can't offer you a discount based upon your being insured by some other company for some time. The proposal is to let them give you a discount for being continuously insured by some other company.

    So who could be against this? Incumbent insurers, that's who! If today my car is insured by, say, Allstate, and I'm considering switching to, say, GEICO... then Allstate can hold on to me by giving me a discount (if I've been insured by them for some years). GEICO might like to give me a discount, but Allstate doesn't want them to be able to do that.

    I think GEICO ought to be able to say "Sure, you've been insured with Allstate for 10 years continuously, we'll give you a discount on your rate."

  5. Death penalty…: YES

    For two reasons. First, if you execute an innocent prisoner, you can't give him anything back. We really are not 100% sure about all those guys on death row. Even if you think it's OK to kill a criminal, it's not OK to kill someone innocent.

    Second, it costs a lot of money, much of it from taxpayers, to go through all the court proceedings necessary to execute the prisoner. Or to change their sentence to life in prison. We do not need to spend this money.

  6. Human trafficking…: YES

    Human trafficking is an abomination. If the price of more vigorous enforcement is that the "erotic services industry" (read the ballot arguments) finds it a little more difficult to do business, I rally have a hard time feeling sorry for them.

  7. Three strikes law…: YES

    The point of this is the three strikes law currently means: "if you have two serious/violent felonies, and one not serious/violent, the judge may or may not be forced to give you a life sentence, depending on the order. If the non-violent/serious one is the third one, the judge must give you that life sentence—but not if it was the 1st or the 2nd."

    Huh? The proposition would change the law to require a life sentence to be imposed for the 3rd serious/violent felony. This only makes sense.

  8. Genetically engineered foods. Labeling.…: YES

    Some people think the law is too vague and will cause various problems. But it seems to me a step in the right direction, vs doing nothing.

  9. Tax to fund education…: YES

    The story I heard is that the worst case for schools is having both 30 and 38 fail. Some education advocates prefer 30, some prefer 38. But if they attack each other too much and both 30 and 38 fail, that's not a good situation for California's future. Thus I want to give both of them the best possible chance of succeeding.

  10. Tax treatment for multistate businesses…: YES

    Why should we give any company a tax break if it's selling a lot of stuff in California? Money from the state is going to the company; it should pay taxes here in proportion to sales.

  11. Redistricting. State senate districts…: YES

    The citizens' redistricting commission drew new districts and prop 40 ratifies those state senate districts. There isn't even an argument against 40 in the voter's pamphlet.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

"Be transformed," he said

We were talking the other day about how to become less apathetic, which in my case means "how to become less self-centered."

It's part of a more general question: how do we change, how do we grow? How does someone become warmer, more patient, less anxious? The Apostle Paul gave us a command ("Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind," Romans 12:2) and other biblical writers gave us various clues, but we don't have a lot of step-by-step instructions. I know a couple of ways that don't work:

  1. Just Trying Harder (Galatians 3:3)
    This doesn't work because my spiritual growth or formation isn't my project; it's God's! John Ortberg gave a terrific sermon on this topic January 10-11, 2009 (link). That command in Romans 12 wasn't worded "Transform yourself"!
  2. Hoping for change but not doing anything (James 2:14-17)
    My growth is God's project (we are his workmanship, Ephesians 2:10) but that doesn't mean I just sit like a block of wood. "Be transformed" is a command, as is "Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, love...." (Colossians 3).
So what does work? I actually wrote an essay on this topic in February 2009, shortly after the sermon mentioned above. I still believe what I wrote back then (except for the links that have since broken), though I might summarize things a bit differently today.

The fact is that God must change us; we cannot change ourselves, as I think the Greeks knew too (besides Paul's rhetorical storm in Galatians 3). Our part is to put ourselves in the way of the means of grace.

Okay, sorry for the jargon, but there's a story of a boy who needed sunlight to be cured from some childhood malady. The cure was in the sun's rays, but the boy's part (or his parents' part) was to make sure he got in the way (the path) of sunlight. In a similar way, God must change me but I must stay connected to him.

If I never read the Bible, never pray, never listen to sermons, never share or celebrate or study with fellow Christians, never participate in the sacraments; if I spend my non-working hours watching television, reading pulp fiction and playing first-person shooter games... then I'm not putting myself in the means of grace and am not doing anything to be transformed.

So does this stuff work? If you put yourself in the way of the means of grace, where the sunshine of God's curative rays so to speak can reach you, will you be transformed?

I have to believe you will, if you want to be. What does Philippians 1:6 say? And what does the rest of Philippians say about how to have 1:6 happen in your life? Or mine? We need to practice humility, to give generously, to be aware that God is the one who changes us, to set our minds on what is true, noble, right, praiseworthy, to refrain from anxiety, to let our forbearance be evident to all, and so on. We put ourselves in the path of the means of grace, we walk in the road of grace, and we'll be transformed by the power of grace.

My February 2009 essay is a little less disjointed (and so is this November followup), but that's what I think. You and I can't just work ourselves into becoming better people without a change of heart, and we can't just wish ourselves there either. We need to focus on letting God work his change in us.

Come to think of it, I wonder if that's part of what Hebrews 4:11 means: "Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest."

Saturday, October 06, 2012

When We Can't All Agree

Do you sometimes hear people say, "The Bible is clear on ________" and think, Clear to you, maybe; it's not quite clear to me?

Some issues, what I think are "essentials," really are clear: God created the world; Jesus commanded us to love each other; Jesus never sinned; he died for us.

But Christians who take the Bible seriously can disagree on other issues, particularly on certain "hot topics." On such topics, where sincere biblical Christians may in good conscience disagree, I find Greg Boyd's attitude and example tremendously helpful:

I can fully appreciate and understand how someone for exegetical reasons comes to the conclusion that Calvinism is true… I don't agree with that but I really understand how you can get to that position exegetically.
"Greg on the Open View: Video One"
recorded in 2008 at Azusa Pacific University (video link)
That view, of being able to appreciate and understand how someone can study the Bible and come to a different conclusion than I currently do, is a terrific example for me as I consider some "non-essential" issues.

With that background, let me outline four possible positions regarding an issue which is no longer controversial today, though it was at one time. Ready?

  1. The only reasonable position is that it's absolutely OK.
  2. I think the Bible permits it, but I understand others may disagree.
  3. I don't think the Bible allows it, but I understand others may disagree.
  4. The only reasonable position is that it's absolutely forbidden.
Oh, the issue I had in mind was slavery. On that issue I think I find myself at #4, though the viewpoints of 19th-century American Christians—even white American Christians—probably spanned the spectrum. American Christians moved over time away from #1 and toward #4 on slavery.

How about... can women be ordained as elders and pastors? There I think early 20th-century American evangelicals may have been mainly in the #3 and #4 camps, but over time more of us fall into #1 or #2 (though not all of us - click here for example). There we moved overall away from #4 and toward #1, but not all of us. Keller is a #3 on this issue but the PCUSA's position is #1 (link).

There are at least two hot-button non-essential issues in the American church today, which I need not mention here. But on these issues I think #2s and #3s can get along with each other. #1s don't seem to want to tolerate #3s, and #4s don't seem to want to tolerate #2s.

This model, with #1–4, is not original with me, but the originator didn't want to be quoted (I'll update this if they change their mind). I find these categories helpful as I think about these issues, and about others' positions on them.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Helping the Poor—a Traditional American Value

Conservative politicians talk a lot about traditional values. One that doesn't get much air-play from Republicans is unambiguously promoted in The New England Primer 1777 Edition [link]:
Give of your portion to the poor,
  As riches do arise;
And from the needy, naked soul,
  Turn not away your eyes.

For he who doth not hear the cry
  Of those who stand in need,
Will cry himself; and not be heard,
  When he does hope to speed.

If God hath given you increase,
  And blessed well your store,
Remember you are put in trust,
  And should relieve the poor.
I'm not making this stuff up! If you search on "new england primer" (no quotes) and look for these phrases, you'll see this and more.

As Marilynne Robinson notes in The death of Adam: essays on modern thought, we tend to think we know what these books say. I'll confess I had no idea what would be in The New England Primer and was pleasantly surprised to find that our country's history was not just about the so-called "pillars of pioneer wisdom" (self-reliance, industry, etc.), but also a lot of concern for the poor. This included slaves, by the way—at least for some parts of the country. (One selling point for domestically-produced maple syrup was that it was not harvested with slave labor—unlike, say, some sugar from the tropics.)

I wonder if the so-called pillar of self-reliance ever was a major part of early American thought. If it was in fact a modern invention, if it really wasn't ever a real pillar of pioneer wisdom, that would elevate my respect for those old pioneers. As the Bible tells us, He who trusts in himself is a fool (Proverbs 28:26), even as it talks about caring for the poor more than about almost anything else.

from January 2012

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

What letter are you writing?

The guys and I have been going through Feeding on the Word, and today we looked at this passage:
Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

I don't remember the discussion questions exactly, but one asked what letter my life was writing this past week. Or what letter I hoped Christ was writing to the world with my life. Or what word I thought Jesus was writing into my heart by his Spirit -- something like that.

I hope my life will be a testimony to what Jesus can do for a man. "Look at this guy: He was impatient and self-centered when I found him. And look at him today! Look at how kind and generous he is." (Remember I said this is what I hope my life will be like; God is certainly not finished with me yet.) Actually I might have been answering a question the book didn't ask. Oh, well...

One of the guys said that the letter (or word, or message) God wrote on his heart was: "This is what's really important: relationship with God and my family" -- rather than career advancement, money, appearances. Another talked about a difficult situation, and how he's responding now, versus how he might have responded a few years ago. So God is writing a letter about patience and tolerance in his heart. Another sensed God's message to his heart was that of love.

Lunch with these brothers is one of the highlights of my week. I love to hear how God is speaking to them and working in their lives. I appreciate their faith in the Lord, their desire to know him better, their willingness to share their lives and to pray. I like the series of books we're using. too -- interesting material and good discussion questions.

But the best thing is just being in touch, sharing and praying together. Which reminds me of a verse: "How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in harmony!" (Psalm 133:1) I'm looking forward to next time -- when maybe the whole group can be there.

from August 2010

Bodily formation? Spiritual formation?

An article in The Atlantic a few months ago described an astonishing experience of bodily formation.
Two years ago, at the age of 50, “Dan” weighed 230 pounds after a decade of putting on weight; he was 45 pounds above the National Institutes of Health's threshold of obesity. After ten minutes of walking in an art gallery, he needed a wheelchair.

Today he weighs 165 -- the clock's rolled back 29 years. He's off all his medicines, and a three-mile walk is a breeze.

What happened? There was no surgery and there were no mysterious fat-burning chemicals. His brother “decided to say the obvious”: that Dan needed to get into some sort of weight-loss program. Dan engaged in bodily disciplines, assisted by a behavior modification program that kept him accountable (David H Freedman, "The Perfected Self",, June 2012,

Bodily disciplines resulted in dramatic bodily change; could spiritual disciplines result in dramatic spiritual change?
Two years ago, 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.

But today, Ray is a new man -- it's like the clock's rolled back 40 or 50 years, to a time before he was mean and bitter. A recent sermon talked about love, joy, peace, patience, and everybody thought of Ray.

What happened? There was no surgery and there were no mysterious rites of exorcism. One of his brothers decided to say the obvious: he needed to get into some sort of spiritual formation program. Ray engaged in spiritual disciplines, assisted by a behavior-modification program that kept him accountable.

OK, “Ray”'s spiritual transformation hasn't really happened. But couldn't it? What if... what if when Ray was about to say something unkind, this passage rose to his awareness: “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such (a word) as is good for edification, according to the need of the moment, that it may give grace to those who hear”?

What if, when he thought to cut someone off on the freeway, these words appeared before his eyes: “Let us do good unto all men...” or “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven”, because he'd just reviewed those verses?

Of course, the issue isn't just knowing these verses, but meditating on them, ruminating on them, and otherwise getting them into our hearts. Ray "knew the Bible better than God" according to the account, and that didn't change him into a man of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and so on.

Here's the thing: if someone doesn't want to change, the practices won't necessarily change him. But for someone who does want to change, who believes his life is hidden with Christ in God, “the word of God ... performs its work in us who believe” as the Apostle Paul tells us.

The Scriptures are, of course, just one avenue God uses to change us; other spiritual practices can be very effective. Two other things would be helpful for “Ray”: first, a brother willing to speak truth to him in love; second, some sort of software—an app?—that could amplify Ray's self-discipline.

It's that second part that I find especially interesting: the idea that technology can help us become better people, rather than making us stupid or lonely or rude, is exciting. This hypothetical app could share some features with a gym or weight-loss app -- help with goal-setting, create charts/graphs, connect to a social network, etc.

So how can we encourage the practices—Bible study, Scripture memory, prayer, meditation, solitude, celebration, silence, etc.—without encouraging Pharisaism? I'll tell you: I don't know. It calls for mindfulness, a hard thing to maintain. But I have to believe it's possible to train oneself in mindfulness by constant use. If we can remember why we read the Bible, why we memorize it, why we pray or sing, that can help us. But as with any spiritual growth, we need help from the Lord. Fortunately, God is happy to help us become more like Christ (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24, Philippians 1:6, 2 Corinthians 3:18, Romans 12:2, etc.) and is near to us whenever we call upon him.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing

I sang this (not very loudly) while walking the dog the other morning.
Come, thou fount of every blessing,
tune my heart to sing thy grace.
Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet
sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount—I'm fixed upon it—
mount of thy redeeming love.
These aren't the Scriptures of course, but we can still observe, interpret, and apply what we find here.

The first thing I notice is the use of the familiar forms "thou" and "thy". This squares with what I saw when looking idly at a French Bible: God is referred to as "tu"/"toi" (singular/familiar) rather than "vous" (formal or plural). This practice is not universally agreed, as the NASB and NKJV editors (for example) Capitalize pronouns when referring to God -- even as (in the NASB case) they use that singular/familiar form (thou, thee, etc.) -- ironic!

The song calls to the fount of every blessing. This is a fountain of blessing, not a faucet or a dripping eave! The sun comes up every morning, God's mercies are new every morning, every moment there's air for us to breathe, and at any time we feel the need we can call to him and he will hear us. Every good and perfect gift is from him. And the songwriter (as well as this singer) asks God's help in praising him.

Now to tell the truth I don't always feel like this; I'm not always aware of God's blessings and I'm not always eager to sing praises to him. Which is why a song like this is helpful.

Come to think of it, I sometimes sing hymns when I'm upset or frustrated.... I remember one Sunday afternoon in Kobe (Japan) when I had spent hours (probably only 30 minutes, but it felt like hours) trying to find some building or other (someone's house, maybe). At some point I gave up in vexation and started driving to church. The kids were with me in the car (the lovely Carol had probably gone on ahead by train) and I began singing a hymn. Maybe it was this one, or Oh For a Thousand Tongues; I can't remember (this was maybe 15 years ago). I thought I should explain myself, so I told the kids I was singing because I needed God to change my heart—to make me more patient and gracious etc., and the hymn was something to remind me of some eternal truths, or maybe it was a prayer (like Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord to thee).

In any case, I do need help being mindful of God's blessings, in keeping a prayerful attitude, and so on.

And of course I need supernatural help if I'm ever to be transformed into the kind of person God wants me to be—a man of love, joy, peace, patience, courage, generosity, forbearance and so on.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Ugly table of contents in PDF exported from

The lovely Carol has a big writing project, which reads well and looks great, except for the table of contents.

She's written this using 3.x on a Mac, and when exporting the automatically-generated table of contents to PDF, the dots run right into the page numbers. It's icky; you can see some of them in the image at left.

I did a web search on "ugly table of contents openoffice pdf" (no quotes) on, then on google; the latter pointed me at this article; it wasn't about this exact problem, but there was a good suggestion -- try using another font.

I therefore went to Format→Styles and Formatting and selected paragraph style "Contents 1". I changed the font from Verdana to Times New Roman. Same for "Contents 2".

The result is at right. I also changed the font size from 10pt to 12pt; for some reason the lines are closer together with Times New Roman, and increasing the font size more or less restored the line spacing.

What a chore! The good thing is that at least some help was available online.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Many "gods" and many "lords"

The title for an engaging book comes from 1 Corinthians 8:5-6
For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many "gods" and many "lords"), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.
This verse is part of a great chapter about freedom and responsibility, which also includes this gem: "Knowledge puffs up but love builds up" (from 2 Corinthians 8:1).

The passage is more specifically about food sacrificed to idols, but Paul mentions, almost in passing, what the point of our lives is, and what should direct us. Looking at verse 1, I have to ask myself sometimes, "Am I one of those people who wants to know more, so I can feel good about myself (puffed up)? Or am I seeking to build up those around me (as Romans 15:2 says)?"

It struck me, though, that if verses 5-6 are true of me—that is, if I live for God the Father and through Jesus Christ my Lord—then I won't be trying to puff myself up; rather, I'll want always to build others up. I'll be more concerned about the impact my actions have on others, and not so excited about insisting on my own way. And here's another trap I'll be able to avoid:

The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know. But the man who loves God is known by God.
1 Corinthians 8:2-3
Rather than thinking too much about my own "knowledge," I'll rejoice in being known by God. And what do I know, anyway? More important than that: Who am I living for and through? And does He know me?

Monday, August 06, 2012

I just did something really dumb with my computer

So of course I want to tell you about it.

I learned a new word the other day: presbyopia. It means "old eyes" basically. The optometrist says it's kinda insulting, and it's OK because we're about the same age. Anyway I bought a new monitor: an acer 27" HD one with pixels just about big enough for me to read.

I wanted to connect it to the computer using DVI, so I got (from a colleague) a video card. I thought I needed a new driver for this card (this is silly part #1) so after some web searching, I downloaded the driver package from the manufacturer. I think.

This was a source package, and it needed kernel headers. I didn't have header files for the kernel version I'm actually running, so I downloaded header files for... another version. Of course then I needed to install the kernel sources for that other version. Then I built this newer kernel....

Somewhere in here I realized that I already had a driver for the video card; it was there in usable form in the kernel I was running, the old one.

Now for the silly part. I rebooted the box, not noticing that the default kernel was the new one. I mentioned above that I had built that kernel? Built and installed it in the /boot partition, actually. But I hadn't built the modules. So the video was in an icky mode, I had no network connectivity, etc. etc. etc.

I'm embarrassed to tell you how much time I wasted (don't tell my boss), but I ended up by putting a post-it on the monitor to remind me to use the 3rd option on the boot menu.

I'll fix it tomorrow.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Driving unconsciously

Started about two weeks back…
I like to think of myself as a courteous driver; when freeway traffic is stopped and someone wants to merge on, I usually let them in. Sometimes, though, if we've been taking turns (one car from the freeway, one from the onramp, one from the freeway, etc.) and suddenly two cars try to merge in front of me, I don't feel like letting the second one in.

Similarly, when getting onto the freeway, I take my turn, though sometimes, if someone already on the freeway doesn't want to let me take my turn, I feel peeved and try to push my way in.

At this point I have to step back and ask myself, what's the big deal if I let one more car in ahead of me, or if I get onto the freeway one car later? What if the person who won't let me in is from out of town, and they're following a friend (who's just about out of sight)? What if the person nosing in front of me has just received word that a loved one is in the emergency room? Couldn't I show them a little grace? Like Jesus said, shouldn't I treat them as I want to be treated? That could be me next time! And sometimes, I actually do.

But not always. Yesterday I was in a traffic-jam situation, bumper-to-bumper, and a luxury convertible passed me on the right and tried to merge in. I wasn't inclined to give him a break, though I wasn't thinking much about it. I just knew I felt my space was being invaded (what did I mean, "my space," anyway? I don't own the road).

He jammed his way in, and having won that argument, flipped me off. I felt like lobbing a paintball at him.

But then I thought, what exactly did happen there, anyway? Did he in fact pass me on the right and cut me off? Did I deserve his wrath?

I had to think about it; I suppose I've done many unkind things on the road—consciously or unconsciously—and so I had to say to the Lord, "Help me not to be deserving of wrath." And as I write this, a passage from 1 Peter 2 comes to mind:

[W]hat credit is there, if when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it, you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God. For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in his steps.
1 Peter 2:20-21, NASB (approximately)

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Thunderbird error copying message to sent folder—with dovecot

The past few weeks, my thunderbird email client has had trouble reading some messages and writing others. I searched for solutions, but none of them did much (I tried compacting my inbox, which is where I experienced the symptom, and this may or may not have helped). Pretty much I said File→Quit, then "killall -i thunderbird" and restarted. But I did that several times today and thought of something else.

Thunderbird on my OpenSUSE 11.3 Linux desktop talks IMAP to a local copy of dovecot (all folders are Maildir on local disk), and I wondered if the problem might have to do with dovecot rather than t-bird. I had read something about dovecot and bad index files affecting mbox-style folders but I decided to give the index thingie a try anyway.

First I stopped dovecot, then went into Maildir and said "mkdir OLD_DOVECOT_INDEX_FILES; mv dovecot.index* OLD_DOVECOT_INDEX_FILES/" and restarted dovecot. So far the results are promising; all things email seem snappy. Here's size/etc of old vs new index files:

collin@collin-dlx: ~/Maildir
total 12748
-rw-r--r-- 1 collin   285448 2012-07-26 13:33 dovecot.index
-rw-r--r-- 1 collin 12689408 2012-07-26 15:29 dovecot.index.cache
-rw-r--r-- 1 collin    12908 2012-07-26 15:29 dovecot.index.log
-rw-r--r-- 1 collin    32776 2012-07-26 13:33 dovecot.index.log.2
collin@collin-dlx: ~/Maildir
% ls -o dovecot.index*
-rw-r--r-- 1 collin 285832 2012-07-26 15:50 dovecot.index
-rw-r--r-- 1 collin  31744 2012-07-26 16:09 dovecot.index.cache
-rw-r--r-- 1 collin   5768 2012-07-26 16:09 dovecot.index.log
-rw-r--r-- 1 collin 127628 2012-07-26 15:48 dovecot.index.log.2
The big thing I notice is that the cache, which was formerly over 12 Mbytes, is now down to about 32K. Interestingly dovecot.index.log.2 is much bigger than the old one, but that doesn't seem to hurt anything.

Obviously, I hadn't run with the newer index files very long before doing the "ls -o", but about 5 hours later t-bird was still able to talk happily to dovecot and show/copy messages just fine.

So far, then, this plan looks like it may have solved my problem. I'll update this posting if not.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Sorting QIF records... a Python3 script

As somewhat of a modern Luddite, I use Quicken® 2002 basic for my home accounting; fortunately, I can download ".qif" reports for my accounts.

But one credit-card account doesn't give me the records in an order I can understand. Usually, I want to know the date range of last week's download, so I type something like
$ grep "^D" visa.QIF | sort
and based on the output, I'll search for transactions dated the following day or later. This way, I won't confuse myself by seeing the same transactions I saw last week (this is where déjà vu is for real).

Tonight I was confused the other way: I ended up with a .QIF file that was missing some transactions. As usual, the transactions were listed in some apparently-random order, and I didn't trust the bank to display transactions on-screen in the same order. Fortunately, the website can be told to display the transactions in some nice order (by transaction date, for example, or post date—ascending or descending). I like this concept, but it's too bad I haven't figured out how to download those transactions in a nice order. It may not be possible.

I wanted to have the on-screen stuff and my QIF file in the same order so I could see what was missing more easily, and feel confident that I had caught everything. How to sort the "QIF" file? For those who don't know, (but why are you reading this?), a QIF file looks like this:

A few things to note:
  • Entries consist of 6 lines, at least they do here; the 6th line begins with ^ and indicates the end of the entry
  • Dollar amounts are preceded by "T" and use commas to separate thousands
  • Dates are preceded by "D" and are in the American format, sort of: mm/dd/yyyy
Since entries have multiple lines, there's not an easy way to just sort them via the "sort" command. So naturally I wrote some Python. If it weren't so late I'd explain it all in some detail. I at least want to share it with you though:
#!/usr/bin/python3 -utt
# vim:et:sw=4
'''Program to sort records from a quicken 'qif' file.

Parameters: filename'''

import os
import sys
from time import localtime, mktime, strftime, strptime

def main(args):
    '''Read quicken records from a qif file, creating a dict for each one.
    At end of file, sort them by US-style date and print them.'''
    if len(args) != 1:
        print('Expected exactly one parameter, viz., filename; got',
                args, file=sys.stderr)
    if not os.path.exists(args[0]):
        print("Can't find inputfile %s" % args[0], file=sys.stderr)
    xactions = list()
    curr = dict()
    for aline in open(args[0], 'r'):
        aline = aline.strip()
        if not aline:

        akey = aline[0]
        aval = aline[1:]
        # end of record?
        if akey == '^':
            if curr:
                curr = dict()
        elif akey == 'T':
            curr[akey] = float(aval.replace(',', ''))   # 1,234 => 1234
        elif akey == 'D':
            curr[akey] = mktime(strptime(aval, '%m/%d/%Y'))
            curr[akey] = aval

    xactions.sort(key=lambda X: X['D'])
    for one in xactions:
        print('%s $%8.2f %4s %s' % (strftime('%Y-%m-%d', localtime(one['D'])),
                                        one.get('T', 99999.99),
                                        one.get('N', '#?')[:4],
                                        one.get('P', '<payee unspecified>')))

def date_cmp(a, b):
    '''Compare dates of two qif-based entries.'''
    return cmp(a['D'], b['D'])

if __name__ == '__main__':
Oh, the date_cmp() function is struck out, because it's not needed in this program. Why did I write it then? Because I was thinking of the way sorting works in python2.x, where you pass a comparison function into sort() if you want to use a non-default one, This post from last year shows how that one works. We don't need it here, though, and actually can't use it, because the sort of Python3 uses a "key" function, rather than a "cmp" function.

With that out of the way, here's how it works, basically: we read the input file ("Activity.QIF" or "Quicken.qif" or whatever) one line at a time. when we see a '^' then we're done with one entry and stash it in a list.

Each entry, by the way, is a python "dict" (like a hash for you Perl guys) -- the key is the first character in each line, and the value is everything after that. For some reason, I wanted to convert the dollar amounts into floating-point numbers (what was I thinking?) and in order to do that, I needed to kill off any ','; that's why the
float(aval.replace(',', ''))
construct above.

For the dates, I wanted to be able to sort them easily, and I thought the easy way to do that was to convert them into scalar values corresponding to "number of seconds since the epoch", so that's what the mktime/strptime stuff is about. By the way, I usually like to code like "import os" and then later "os.path.exists(...)." This avoids embarrassing name collisions, and besides makes it clear where each thing came from. But with all those "time" routines, is there any doubt where they came from? I mean, localtime, mktime, str*time.

When we get to the end of the file, we've got all the records, so we sort them. A sanity-check (to make sure we don't have data left over in curr) might be nice, but that's "an exercise for the reader."

As I mentioned above, the sorting uses "key" rather than "cmp", and the "key" function just takes the value in each entry corresponding to the 'D' element—a less-than-one-liner, so I used a lambda to say, "hey, map X to X['D']"; it's not worth a whole "def funcName(foo):"

We then take the sorted list and print one element at a time: date, dollar amount, "check number" (that's what the "N" is), and payee. (Is it something else for deposits? I dunno.)

If it weren't past my bedtime, I'd explain further. But it is, so I won't. Except to point out that in python3, "print" is a function, not a statement. I may add more explanation later.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Overcoming Anxiety - Part Deux

(Part one was several years ago—also linked here.) Recently I heard some things about anxiety, and I wanted to share them.

The first thing is that anxiety is related to trying to manage outcomes. (Where did I hear that? It wasn't here.) This put me in mind of something I read in Merton's No Man Is an Island, which I've been (re-)reading for years:

Johannes Tauler somewhere makes a distinction between two degrees of pure intention, one of which he calls right intention, and the other simple intention. …

When we have a right intention, our intention is pure. We seek to do God's will with a supernatural motive. We mean to please Him. But in doing so we still consider the work and ourselves apart from God and outside Him. Our intention is directed chiefly upon the work to be done. When the work is done, we rest in its accomplishment, and hope for a reward from God.

But when we have a simple intention, we are less occupied with the thing to be done. We do all that we do not only for God but so to speak in Him. We are more aware of Him who works in us than of ourselves or of our work. …

4.17 (pp. 70-71)

With a right intention, you quietly face the risk of losing the fruit of your work. With a simple intention you renounce the fruit before you even begin. You no longer even expect it. Only at this price can your work also become a prayer.

4.18 (p. 74)
Since much of the time my intention is impure, it's no wonder that I have anxiety; I want to do what I want to do, and I sometimes see God's will as something I have to accommodate myself to. So naturally when I'm doing my will, I'm pursuing some outcome; I want my work to produce some result—that's why I do it!

So I need to be transformed by the renewing of my mind (Romans 12:2) so that I can have a pure intention—and more than that, a simple one.

I wonder if that's what the author of Hebrews meant when he wrote:

There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God's rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience
Hebrews 4:9-11 (NIV)
If I can really do that, truly surrender the fruit of my work before I even start, then maybe I'll be able to enter that rest, to be transformed.

And the world will be a better place, at least for people who interact with me.

A couple more things

A friend asked us to pray "that I would be less concerned about what other people think of me, and more interested in what God thinks." This is certainly an important part of finding rest for our souls (which Jesus promised in Matthew 11:28-30); when we are working for others' approval, it's a tough row to hoe... especially since every day brings new opportunities to be criticized or judged by somebody. Jesus wasn't talking about this in John 6:27-29, but if we truly believe in Jesus, believe that he is the source of life, and look only to Him for our approval, I wonder if we'd have less anxiety, less hunger in our souls.

And on the other end, something that can increase anxiety is… being an American! A recent article points out that the United States is, in the author's words, "the world's leading exporter of worrywarts"—which, she says, is a consequence of our broken meritocracy. We Americans like to think that we can have "success"—we can manage our career outcomes—by ability and effort, but it's not actually true. The uncertainty exacerbates the anxiety that would be there anyway.

This doesn't mean that anxiety is inevitable for Americans, but if you're an American and wondering why you can't get rid of anxiety, that may be part of why it's harder than it ought to be.

The good news, though, is that our God is mighty to save.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

A little good news today from Caltrain

According to Caltrain's ticket types page, a monthly pass can now be bought as late as the 15th of the month. This is great news, because in the past, I've returned from vacation on the 10th of the month, when the monthly pass nazis said "No monthly pass for you!"

The monthly pass is still a good deal on the 15th, because the it's the only pass that doesn't require one to "tag off" at the end of each trip.

I still hate the clipper card, and I still wish I didn't have to use it, but this "can't buy your monthly pass after the 9th" vexation at least is over.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Another confession

As I mentioned earlier, I'm on the nominating committee for our church, and we're currently in the process of selecting, or rather discerning, who should be added to the board this fall.

The process involves meeting the candidates and hearing their stories: how did you meet Jesus, how is your relationship with him now, how have you seen God at work in/through your life—this sort of thing. People have wonderful testimonies of God's work in their lives, and as I wrote earlier, our meetings—both our discussions with each candidate and our debriefing discussions afterward—bring a lot of joy and encouragement.

And insecurity and envy too. When we say that someone is very spiritual, or we're impressed with the things God has done in and through them, or that the level of maturity is really high, then—well, it's embarrassing, but there's a part of me that wonders, "What did they say about me when I was a candidate?" or "What would they say if I were the one who'd been interviewed?"

Isn't that silly? We're talking here about godliness, about how closely someone is living with God, and I've got insecurity and envy about that.

Which is why I find myself singing "I Need Thee Ev'ry Hour" a fair amount lately. A good reminder, and certainly true for me.

Who is my brother?

Why is this question important? I mean, do we really need to know who is a brother (or sister) in Christ, vs. who isn’t? In other words, can’t we just treat everyone the same?

Well, Jesus does say to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44-47), and we can certainly honor and respect everyone we meet, but the New Testament writers warn us about false prophets (2 Peter 2:1; Jesus calls them “wolves in sheep’s clothing”—Matthew 7:15), antichrists (1 John 2:18), people trying to lead us astray (1 John 2:26), purveyors of a different gospel (Galatians 1:8), wolves who distort the truth (Acts 20:29), etc. And Jesus himself told us that if a brother doesn’t listen after being reproved, to “treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matthew 18).

But wait; aren’t we all God’s children? Well—no, we aren’t; John writes that Jesus gave the power (or the right) to become children of God to those who welcome him, who believe in him (John 1:12). This would be meaningless if everyone were already God’s child. Jesus also said to some religious leaders in his day, “You are children of your father the devil” (John 8:44), and Paul writes about being adopted (Romans 8). Although every human being is created in God’s image, we are not all his children in the way Jesus or John or Paul thinks, until something happens.

What is that something? Well, the Bible doesn’t tell us in a scientific or systematic way; it’s not like the DSM or the Motor Vehicle Code. The biblical writers use a number of different terms: John 1:12 talks about receiving or welcoming Jesus, which is related somehow to believing in his name; those who do that can become children of God. Similarly John 3:14-15 talks about believing in Jesus, who would be lifted up the way the snake was lifted up in the desert; those who believe receive eternal life. The Apostle Paul talks about a righteousness from God, which comes through faith in Christ to all who believe (Romans 3:21-22) [mouse here for more].

So not everyone is God’s child; is it enough if someone says he believes in Christ? Well, what does he believe about Christ? When the Apostles talk about believing in Christ, they mean believing what they say about him—for example that he was a real person who died for our sins and rose from the dead. In his gospel and his first letter, John begins by talking about Jesus and the fact that he (John) personally saw him: “The word became flesh and dwelt among us... and we have seen his glory” (John 1:14); “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched...” (1 John 1:1). John is also specific in his instructions about testing the spirits:

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God… (1 John 4:1-2)
I take the phrase “has come in the flesh” as shorthand for “has come in the flesh, dwelt among us, taught us about God, died for our sins, and was raised from the dead”—as Paul says in the first few lines of 1 Corinthians 15.

At least this is how I read the New Testament writers. I don’t think someone has to believe in the historicity of Jonah or Hosea to be a brother in Christ; they don’t have to agree with me on the rite of baptism, they needn’t share my views on sexuality, politics, fiscal or monetary policy, or women’s ordination to be a brother in Christ. They could be a communist or a racist or a libertarian, they might have bad table manners, they might pick their nose or scratch their armpits in public, they might smoke tobacco or marijuana; if they believe Christ died for their sins, if they welcome him into their lives, then they’re a brother (or sister) in Christ. We may choose our friends; we don’t choose our family members.

On the other hand, if someone doesn’t believe Jesus was a real person, or they think Jesus didn’t really suffer and die for our sins, or they don’t believe Jesus really rose from the dead, then they’re not a brother in Christ, though they may be a very nice person. Someone who thinks Jesus Christ was a kind of ideal concept, or who thinks the resurrection was some ahistorical tale, may be a great humanitarian, but they’re not in the family of God. They might go to the same church, they might dress nicely and speak politely and have the “right” views on a lot of social issues, but they’re neighbors or friends, not part of God’s family.

“Our God is mighty to save”… me?

As the band rehearsed for the 9:30 service, I reflected on that line from the chorus:
He can move the mountains
Our God is Mighty to save
He is Mighty to save
Mighty to Save by Michael W. Smith
[click for full lyrics]
Evangelicals used to talk a lot about escaping judgment (see for example John 5:24). We didn’t make up that concept, but it doesn’t communicate much to the modern materialist. In other words, if someone thinks that the present life is all there is, hell isn’t scary; the same applies to someone who doesn’t think himself a major villain—he might say to himself, “I’m no Hitler or Milošević—hey, I’m not even Bernie Madoff—so I guess I’ll do okay.”
and I wondered, if I weren’t already a believer in Jesus, what would I make out of these lines? I mean, let’s be realistic: as an upper middle class American male—in other words, as a man of privilege—what kind of salvation do I (or men like me) need? A not-very-helpful answer is mentioned in the box at right.

But as I asked the myself the question, the words of the Apostle Peter came to mind: “you were redeemed from the futile way of life inherited from your forefathers” (from 1 Peter 1). Peter also wrote about being “useless or unfruitful” (2 Peter 1) and how we can avoid that. Paul’s words also came to mind: “For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, spending our days in malice and envy, hated by men and hating one another” (from Titus 3). From these passages we might have the beginnings of an answer for the post-modern man who thinks he has everything.

Because even the healthy, successful American man isn’t as good a person as his dog thinks he is; his family and his colleagues and his subordinates have seen his selfishness, his mistakes, his blind spots. And if he’s honest with himself, he also knows self-doubt. Has his life made a difference, really? Will this world be better because he was in it? What does his life mean beyond the accumulation of experiences, possessions and accomplishments?

Paul’s words are echoed in step 1 of AA-esque twelve-step programs: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol— that our lives had become unmanageable.” (link) That is, we are not masters of ourselves; we cannot control our tongues (try going 24 hours, or even two waking hours, without complaining). We need to be saved from our blind spots, our envy, greed, pride, and so on; we need to be saved lest our lives be wasted in our selfishness and futile slavery to our urges.

And Jesus came to save us from a meaningless life; he offers us salvation, not only an escape from the judgment of Hell, but also the opportunity to join with him to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to earth—beginning with our own hearts. This is what he meant when he taught us to pray, “Father in heaven… your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6). And when he says, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8), he doesn't just mean that one might suffer eternal judgment after this life is over; he also means that one may gain an abundance of accomplishments, experiences, possessions—one may be a man of privilege—yet still not be comfortable in his own skin in this futile and meaningless life.

But this need not be anyone’s fate, because Jesus is mighty to save. And when we sing that Jesus conquered the grave, we don’t just mean we have a chance to live forever after we die; we also mean that Jesus overcame the tragedy of death. That is, when our time on earth is up, we can leave knowing that our lives are not useless or unfruitful, that we did not entirely waste them in futile pursuits, that in the end God was pleased with who we have become.

Author of salvation
He rose and conquered the grave
Jesus conquered the grave
Mighty to Save by Michael W. Smith
[click for full lyrics]

Thursday, June 28, 2012


Does that title look a little strange? What’s that dot doing atop a capital ‘I’? Well, it’s Turkish. We recently took a Rick Steves walking tour of Istanbul (which I should write “İstanbul”), where our tour guide told us there are 29 letters in the Turkish alphabet. Here’s the deal: from the 26 in the American alphabet, subtract three letters:
  • Q
  • W (except in signs pointing the way to “W.C.”)
  • X
Then add:
  • Ç/ç (sounds like our ‘ch’)
  • Ğ/ğ (lengthens previous vowel sound)
  • “İ” vs “I” / “ı” vs “i” (without the dot, like the ‘e’ in ‘the’; with it, like the ‘ee’ in ‘bee’)
  • Ö/ö (like German)
  • Ş/ş (like our ‘sh’)
  • Ü/ü (like German)
The result is something more phonetic than we have in English with our ‘ph’ (except in shepherd) and ‘ough’ (as in cough, rough, though, through), etc.

An old Wikipedia article adds more detail.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

I wish I were this guy, sorta

Which guy do I mean? The best-selling author? The Nobel laureate?

Nope, the guy I'm thinking of is basically just me with one change. An old friend talked about getting up in the morning and wanting one thing more than anything else: a word from the Lord. Another friend talks about how he'll skip brushing his teeth before he'll skip reading the Bible in the morning.

I am not like those guys. Sure, when I do open the Bible I usually find something that makes me really glad I did. But to me it's kinda like eating a healthy diet—like having oatmeal for breakfast 5-6 days a week. I know it's good for me, I know I should, I usually do (at this stage in my life anyway), but it's not the thing I'm simply dying to do each morning—or necessarily any other time of the day. That's right, I can go a whole day without wanting a word from the Lord.

The guy I want to be is a guy who wants, more than anything else, to hear or read something from God every day, every hour—and to desire his will with a pure intention.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Ever have one of those days...

... when you can hardly believe how good you've got it? The last few have been like that for me, so even though I'm supposed to be balancing the checkbook, I want to take no more than 15 minutes and tell you about it.

I'm on the "nominating committee" at our church, which among other things means we consider who will become the "incoming class" of elders this September. The congregation recommended several dozen folks (nearly 60) and our job is to meet with and pray about and discuss and try to discern who the Lord wants to appoint: eight of them, to be installed this September. We've been meeting for about an hour a few times a month, and given the long weekend, I thought to invite them over for dinner.

So even before that, I have to say that is tremendously nourishing and encouraging and uplifting and very sweet to spend time with these mature, committed, energetic folks, focused on this very important task.

OK, so I thought about dinner, and it occurred to me that it might be nice to roast some lamb. I have a Weber® kettle barbecue, which actually smokes small cuts of meat quite well. The local market had apple chips, which as it turns out give a terrific flavor. "But," I said to myself, "not everybody likes lamb" -- especially something like a roast leg of lamb, which is practically baaa-ing when it comes to the table; I mean it is really lamb-y.

So I thought, fine, I'll take a leg of lamb and roast/smoke half of it, and make stew out of the rest. Our son-in-law gave us a gift card (long story) for Safeway, and they had boneless lamb legs. Yes!

But even the lamb stew might be too lamb-y for some folks, I thought, and having in mind the recent news story which said your chances of dying in a 15? year period were 20? per cent higher if you ate a lot of red meat, I also got a salmon fillet. I decided to smoke half of it and grill the other half after marinating it in "soy vey" sauce.

What occurred to me part way through this whole thing is, I guess I'm part "Japanese mother" -- as some story goes, the mother shows her affection for her children by what she packs for them in their lunch-boxes. In a similar way, I guess it was my fond affection for these dear brothers and sisters that expressed itself in these four dishes (only three of which involved the Weber).

The other thing of course was the abundant blessings I've received, not only the gift card but the time and resources to prepare something like this; one of my friends said "We're going to eat like kings" and indeed we did: not just the stuff I prepared (and some very kind words were said about my cooking) but also things others brought: cole slaw made from a family recipe, an exotic "cheesy-potato casserole" from the wilds of Ohio, a rice salad... and a home-made lemon cake, made with Duncan's assistance. Duncan Hines that is.

But how many people throughout history have been able to eat like this? How many people today have friends they're involved with, working on a task that's bigger than all of them and has nothing to do with making money? How many people are as fortunate as I am?

And as I sometimes say, there are few pleasures in this life greater than preparing food for dear friends and enjoying it with them.


My employer allows us to take days off to do volunteer work, and that's what I did for most of Tuesday. This wasn't building a house or feeding the poor—not directly, anyway. There's some programming work that needs doing for a nonprofit organization; they do medical education around the world. Anyway, I've been taking a day or two a month for the past few months and slowly progressing this work. They are patient because I'm doing it for free.

How many companies give employees a paid day off to do volunteer work? How many of us get to do things they love to do, to help accomplish something really important?

During the day, I took some time off to interview someone who may be an elder starting this fall. Another committee member and I heard about his faith journey, his desire to serve the Lord, the things God has been doing in his life and the way God has been using him. Wow -- how often do we get to hear stories like this?

That was rhetorical, but the answer for me is: three times this week! I had another one that evening, and I have one scheduled for this coming Saturday.

I've spoken with both my daughters this week and my wife a couple of times today (they're all in other states at the moment); I have health enough to ride my bike to and from the train station; our friends are willing to take the dog for a bit so the poor creature won't be bored to tears, alone at home…

I could go on and on, but it's already been half an hour and I need to get to work.

It has been one of those weeks... how could anyone be so fortunate as I am? I sure don't know—not that I'm complaining! Praise God from whom all blessings flow.