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.