Archive for February, 2010

Goodbyes are Hard

February 25, 2010

Don’t be dismayed at good byes.  A farewell is necessary before you can meet again.  And meeting again, whether after moments or lifetimes, is certain for those who are friends.

Richard Bach – Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

The theology in this quote is awful.  But it was an influential book at an awkward age of my life.   Worth a look through if you have the time – it’s short.

There is something to be said for how a Christian approaches good byes.  As hard as they are, they are also reminders that we will be meeting again – and it blessedly has nothing to do with whether we are friends are not.  It isn’t reliant on how I feel about somebody else and, thank God, it’s not reliant on how somebody else feels about me.  It’s reliant on God stepping into our shoes and promising that what He accomplishes is good and binding for anyone who will receive it. 

None of us are sure what tomorrow will bring.  Or the next minute.  Life can come and go in the blink of an eye.  We can’t preserve things, we can only enjoy them, appreciate them, and be grateful for them.  Each relationship is special, and part of that specialness lies in the unpredictability.  Where will it go?  How long will it last?  Who will we be down the road because of one another?

It’s natural that good byes are hard and sad.  They are reminders of our brokenness, of the brokenness of a world where good byes are not only necessary, they are inevitable.  What a blessing it is that, as we prepare to say a round of good byes once again, we can take hope and joy in the knowledge that we will once again see these friends, and that someday, no further goodbyes will be necessary.

Where Do You Go From Here?

February 19, 2010

I spend a lot of time thinking about how to talk about Christianity to people who don’t understand it.  How to answer questions that naturally come to a 21st century mind when you start talking with them about the idea that everything around us is here because of a all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present deity that can’t be detected by the empirical methodologies that many people assume must be the gold standard for knowledge.  I think this is an important thing to be able to do – to move with someone past the initial reaction that this is ludicrous, to a place where they’re hopefully able to at least see that Christianity addresses some pretty impressive questions of our existence that thus far have not been very compellingly dealt with by the scientific method. 

What I don’t give as much thought to however, is the important next issue of what do you tell someone who earnestly desires to learn about Christianity and the God that it confesses?  Where do you point someone who has been brought to the place where they are willing to say that they think there’s a God out there, and now they want to know Him? 

It’s too easy to assume that people will just sort of figure out what comes next.  Plugging into a community of faith should provide some tangible steps in terms of education and mentoring.  But a lot falls onto the individual’s shoulders.  Where to begin, and how to try and make sense of things between Sunday worship services and whatever education or mentoring opportunities a faith community offers?  What do we do in those moments of spare time?

There are plenty of answers out there.  Walk into a Christian bookstore and you’ll find plenty of resources and programs and approaches.  Some of them have merit, I’m sure.  But ultimately, they’re also all trying to earn your dollar, and I tend to be very jaded about the consumerism that devours Christians.  I tend to suspect that some of the best answers don’t require a special Bible and an accompanying journal and a faith calendar with matching pen.  Probably not a fair caricature, but probably not entirely inaccurate either.

Martin Luther talked about a cycle of activity, a cycle that keeps repeating itself over and over again in the life of a Christian.  Luther’s emphasis was on the development of the life of a theologian.  But I would argue that we are all theologians – some are just better or more intentional at it than others, and some people make it their occupation as well.  If this process is good for a pastor, it’s also valid for housewives, teachers, mechanics – anyone who calls them self a Christian and takes seriously the Biblical encouragements towards deeper lives of faith and trust in God.  And it doesn’t require anything more than a Bible, which is the one investment every Christian ought to make.  Check out your local used bookstore – they’re likely to have quite a few good Bibles at considerably less than the $30 – $100 you’ll pay for a new one. 

Each of the stages in the cycle are related to one another, and flow from one another and into the next cycle. 

The first stage of the cycle is prayer.  We pray for the Holy Spirit to work in us, to activate and stimulate our mind.  To lead us and guide us.  Prayer can take many forms and serve many purposes, but in this cycle, the prayer is specifically to prepare ourselves with the expectation that God can and will lead us and guide our thoughts.  Sort of like tuning ourselves in, setting aside that time and place for that purpose, and not allowing competing distractions and obligations distract us. 

Now that we’ve stilled our minds somewhat, and prepared ourselves, and sought God’s leading, we turn to the Word for meditation.  To Scripture.  The reason for this is simple.  If we’re praying for God’s leading and guidance, we find these things most readily in God’s revealed Word.  The Holy Spirit may act and speak in many ways – but those ways are never in contradiction to or separation from what God tells us in His Word.  The more certain we are that the Holy Spirit might be speaking directly to us, the more important it is that we are grounded in the Word, so we can discern clearly, and make sure that we’re not getting signals crossed. 

Meditation here is not meant in the Eastern sense of the term.  We aren’t trying to clear our minds of any thoughts, but rather to focus our mind on the Word.  Scripture doesn’t advocate emptying ourselves – and even warns about the dangers of trying this (Matthew 12:43-45).  Rather, Scripture advocates that we fill ourselves with God’s Word.  As we spend time in the Word, gradually those things that need to be removed from our lives get pushed out – there isn’t room for them any more. 

Meditation is also anticipated as a spoken act.  While there’s inward consideration, there’s also value to be had in reading Scripture aloud.  Hearing it in your ears as your eyes digest it.  The idea of silent reading is a relatively new innovation, the byproduct of widespread literacy and the ability to print tons of books cheaply, so that everyone can have their own.  Through most of human history, meditation and reading has been an out-loud affair, with one literate person perhaps reading to a room full of people who may or may not have the ability to read the words for themselves.  Luther also envisioned that the focus of meditation would be guided by participation in worship.  In other words, personal meditation would focus on portions of Scripture read and expounded upon the previous week in worship. 

The goal here is to avoid meditation becoming an intensely inward and private affair, and to instead foster meditation as an outward thing, outward in focus on the written Word, outward in terms of being spoken rather than read silently.  Outward in expecting God’s Word to speak to us, rather than placing the emphasis on some sort of internalized emotional response or spiritual experience.

The last stage of the cycle sounds disturbing.  The last stage is temptation.  The more we pray to understand God’s Word to us, and the more time we spend in meditating on that Word and seeking to understand it and apply it, the more likely we are to encounter spiritual counter-attack.  In other words, developing and growing as Christians takes place in a context – which is the broken and sinful world around us and within us.  It is in temptation that the Word and the prayer are put to the test, so to speak.  The experience of faith is not just a mental head game, it’s something that is tested in battle, and we should expect to see the fruits of our prayer and study in the ability to resist temptation.

However temptation sometimes seems overwhelming.  Sometimes the desire to sin is so strong, or the appeal of sin seems almost irresistible.  Beyond our own power to resist.  So what do we do?  Where can we go for reinforcement and backup?

Back to prayer.  Back to seeking actively God’s direction and leading and protection and guidance in the face of overwhelming temptation.  Our reliance is never on ourselves, because alone, we fail.  The last stage of the cycle drives us back to the first stage, and the cycle begins again.  Over and over and over.  Daily.  Perhaps multiple times a day!  In that process of prayer, meditation, and temptation, we see ourselves growing.  Not just intellectually, but experientially.  In our ability to resist temptation, or to avoid it.  In our ability to call Scripture to mind when necessary to resist, or to share with someone else. 

This is a good process that more Christians (myself included!) need to avail themselves of more frequently.  It assumes participation in a body of faith where
the Word of God is being read and taught, providing the basis for further meditation during the week.  It drives our focus outwards rather than inwards, and constantly reminds us that our strength is not ourselves.  Our strength is in the God who has already saved us by His Son, and continues to strengthen and equip us through His Spirit. 

No Effect?

February 18, 2010

For those who wish to assert that the legalization of gay marriage doesn’t (or won’t) have any impact on anyone else in our society, I would like to point out that actually, there are very real effects on very real people who have nothing to do with homosexuality – marriage or otherwise.  

Is this just blackmail?  Play by my rules or else I’m taking my ball and going home.  We would generally decry that simplistic response as being immature and potentially devastating both in actual human lives as well as on a philosophical and theological level.  I’m sure that there are people who would see this move by Catholic Charities as exactly that.  A willingness to put very vulnerable lives at risk rather than work with the times. 

Of course, the same argument could be made against those who have pushed for the legalization of gay marriage.  Understanding that such actions would force some organizations to withdraw services rather than change core ideological beliefs that have existed for millenia, and aware that those impacted by those withdrawals will undoubtedly far outnumber those who benefit from the redefinition of a universal human institution, there is still a push to change the definition of that institution. 

The collateral damage in this epic battle over the definition of marriage, gender, and sexuality is going to be huge.  So huge, that I suspect the damage isn’t really collateral at all.  There are no unaffected bystanders in this battle. 


February 18, 2010

My mind works through what to say as my hands wander of their own accord, gathering things for morning chapel.  Boxes of matches.  A gas lighter-thingy retrieved from the crowded closet where the paraments are kept.  Two palm leaves are retrieved from an upper shelf of the bookcases behind my desk.  The bookcases are all but empty now, their contents packed away in boxes sitting in my garage with the useful label of  Books – Paul’s Office on each of the 20+ boxes.   Why is packing an office and a house and a family so surrealistically simple, considering we aren’t sure where our final destination will be, or when we’ll reach it?   I make a mental note to bring in a few more boxes to pack up the last two shelves of books. 

I flex the leaves of the palm branches.  Brittle.  But not as brittle as expected.  How brittle should they be after 11 months?  The irony of dust gathering on last year’s Palm Sunday branches brings a half-smile.  The Jews of Jesus’ day weren’t the only ones who grew tired of the waving palms and waiting.  How quickly we shelve the songs when we don’t get to dictate the how and the when and the where.  I empty a small glass candle-holder-bowl-thingy of the packets of stevia, rubber bands, and dust that have accumulated there in the last year or so.  On another shelf are three small gold boxes, each with a different scented oil inside.  Myrrh.  Nard.  Frankincense and Myrrh.  I opt for the simplicity of myrrh and slip the vial into my pocket.  Burial oil

I grab a large glass bowl that has been sitting on my desk for the last several months, awaiting it’s return to the kitchen.  Matches, gas lighter-thingy, dried palm branches, big glass bowl, small glass bowl.  I locate some aluminum foil in the kitchen and carry the collection to the three benches outside the sanctuary side door.  The foil is folded over and anchored around the rim of the bowl.  I tear off the palm leaves farthest from the base.  Those should be the driest, right?  They don’t crumble or tear easily.  Their fibrousness is impressive.  Even without sustenance for a year, they retain their strength, their shape and form. 

The gas lighter-thingy sets the leaves quickly aflame.  Last year I burned the leaves in front of the children, and they get very excited and very eager to squeeze in closer to watch the smoke and flame.  Better to avoid that potential health hazard.  It doesn’t take very many leaves to make enough ashes.  Enough for the 30 or so children that will soon assemble, and a few teachers, and then a much older group of people later in the evening for the service.  Ashes go a long way.   

Smoke wafts upwards.  I feel vaguely like some sort of furtive drug user, and I wonder if someone will report that the pastor is freebasing outside the sanctuary.  Nobody wanders by.  The last of the flames die away, and I poke the ashes with the gas lighter-thingy.   Everything has been burned away.  The leaves that had been green and fresh a year ago are nothing but ash – so insubstantial comparatively.  And yet that ash leaves a mark that’s hard to get rid of.  The foil is stained with it already, and I know that soon my fingers will be as well.  Residue has power of it’s own that gets overlooked in our obsession with vitality

I crumple the ashes in the aluminum foil, crushing them to a fine powder punctuated here and there with exclamation points of sturdier fiber that refuses to disintegrate, even after having been burned.  I pour the ashes into the small glass bowl thingy.  The children are coming across the parking lot, and I meet them in front of the sanctuary.  They sit on the cement outside the church doors as I pour some of the fragrant oil into the small bowl of ash, mixing it with the ashes into a pungent, sickly-sweet paste.  I give the three and four year olds a Sesame Street synopsis of Ash Wednesday.  Jesus loves us so much.  So much that He died for us – and then God made Him alive again!  Can it really be that simple?  Could it possibly be any more complicated? 

The children receive the ashes on their foreheads.  The teachers receive them as well.  I tell the children Jesus loves you as I make the smudge on their tiny heads.  Dust you are.  To dust you will return I tell the teachers.  Perhaps I should simply tell the teachers that Jesus loves them as well.  But they’re old enough to consider mortality for a few seconds this morning before herding the children back across the parking lot.  So many things that should be said, taught, explained.  So little time, and each second burns away so quickly leaving nothing but residue.  What residue of mine will remain with these children? 

No songs this morning.  Next week we’ll have songs.  Whatever songs you want to sing.  Maybe even We Wish You a Merry Christmas, which one boy requests every week, despite his teachers reminders that it’s no longer Christmas.  But he knows the song so well.  He sang it with gusto in front of a packed church two months ago.  I can’t blame him for wanting to sing it still.  We love to sing the songs we know the best, before we grow self-conscious of our voices and our own joy in them.  Whatever you want to sing, we’ll sing.  Next week will be our last time together.  But there will be a new pastor here soon, and maybe he’ll come and sing songs with you as well.  Maybe he’ll tell you how much Jesus loves you, and laugh at your eagerness to say whatever crosses your mind, as soon as it crosses it. 

I pray he will.  I’ll leave you with ashes and songs, with laughter and hopefully with the idea that Jesus loves you.  I pray that you’ll remember that message more than the silly songs, the puppets, the story books and whatever tools I grabbed at to try and convey the importance and joy of a message simple enough for a three-year old to grasp, and complex enough to wrestle with the rest of their lives.   The person who brings this simple and profound message to you isn’t important – only the message is important.  But the residue of the messengers sometimes remains behind.  Smudges where and when we least expect them, marking us in unexpected ways. 

Mocking Marriage

February 16, 2010

It’s late, and my brain is fuzzy, and this may not come out as clearly as I’d like it to.  But I’m going to try anyways.

A little ditty out of Florida
, part of the continuing onslaught against the traditional definition of marriage.  And by traditional, I mean the definition of marriage held by literally every culture in every place throughout all of human history – a binding sexual (or at least potentially sexual)  relationship between a man and a woman. 

Two strangers wed in Florida to protest the fact that homosexuals cannot marry in that state.  The idea being that there is nothing that special about marriage in the first place – any man and woman can do it, even if they don’t know one another.  So why not allow homosexuals to marry as well? 

Why not, indeed?

Actually, I think this little stunt backfires.  The participants are trying to mock the fact that any person of the male gender can marry pretty much any person of the female gender.  Barring already being married to someone else, or not satisfying age or perhaps mental competency requirements, any man and any woman can get married.  Clearly, the participants here find such a situation laughable.  As the story says, they “protest the fact that, while two strangers can marry in Florida as long as they’re of the opposite sex, committed same-sex couples must be turned away.”

The implication is that somehow it’s the commitment factor that makes a couple worthy of being married, regardless of their gender or sexual persuasion.  As long as they’re committed, they ought to be allowed to get married.  But marriage is an institution concerned less about whether or not the people coming to it are interested or excited or commited to it, but whether or not they are capable of legally entering into the relationship.  In other words, is it a man and a woman who don’t have any compelling reasons to be denied a marriage relationship?

Tina Turner once sang:

What’s love got to do with it?
What’s love, but a second-hand emotion?

I think you could substitute the word commitment and the idea would hold here. 

The current notion seems to be that marriage in the civil sense (obviously in the theological sense there are a whole lot of other issues that come into play) ought to be about commitment, love, devotion, and any number of other love-song worthy sentiments.  Those things are certainly desirable.  But that’s not what marriage is about.  Not in the sense that marriage has been universally (until the last few decades) understood across culture, geography, time, etc.  Marriage has remained such a universally understood constant in terms of who can participate in it, because it has nothing to do with sentiment, and everything to do with gender.  Separate genders.  Male and female.  Because this is the combination necessary to produce children.

Some cultures recognize lots of different types of relationships.  Some of them sexual, and some of them homosexual.  But until recent history, no culture uniformly treated these other forms of sexual relationships as equivalent to marriage.  Marriage has always been different or unique.  This is not accidental.  Whatever we do to have fun or whatever you want to call it, marriage is intended to perform more serious and far-reaching purposes. 

From a civil, secular sense, the attempt to relate marriage to feelings and intentions is misguided and misdirected.  The institution of heterosexual marriage remains crucial whether these things are present or not.   Whether it’s a traditional Indian wedding that has been arranged since the bride and groom were children – where indeed the bride and groom may be complete strangers to each other – or whether it’s the Western idea of a romantic courtship that leads to marriage, people understand that marriage ought to be something unique, serious and lifelong. 

The fact that marriages in America fail at alarming rates does not discredit the fact that heterosexual marriage is a specific and unique legal and social relationship, and needs to remain as such.  The fact that total strangers can get married reinforces this function, rather than somehow discrediting it.  The fact that people recognize that the idea of total strangers showing up to get married is somehow bizarre or absurd demonstrates that the fact that it can happen does not invalidate the seriousness of the relationship that is created.

The two people involved in this stunt are married.  They may not remain married – though of course they could.  What they intended as a joke simply affirms the fundamental purpose and nature of civil marriage.  I guess it’s back to the drawing board in terms of effective protests.

Study Bibles

February 15, 2010

I received a query about a study Bible, and how to determine whether a study Bible was worthwhile or not.  It’s something that I haven’t given a lot of detailed thought to prior to this request.  So I started giving some detailed thought to it, and decided to post some of what I’ve come up with.

This is a great summary of the evolution of study Bibles.  The author claims to be an expert on the topic, and it would appear that he’s not simply bragging.  Until I hear otherwise, I’m inclined to take his word on much of what the above-linked page talks about.  While the page appears to be rather outdated, the basic information seems solid.  Read this for detailed information on study Bibles, or to answer specific questions about a particular study Bible.  What follows are some general guidelines that I feel are reasonable to focus on when choosing a study Bible.

Translation vs. Adaptation/Interpretation
There are a lot of Bibles out there.  That doesn’t mean that they’re all equivalent, though.  Traditionally, most Bible versions have been translations – the goal is to accurately convey the original language as closely as possible, even though this might make the text somewhat difficult to read.  Other Bibles are adaptations or interpretations – the goal is readability as well as a reasonable adherence to the original texts.  If you want to be sure that the Bible you’re reading is based solidly on the original language documentation available, choose a translation.  If you’re more concerned with understanding what you’re reading, then an adaptation or interpretation might be more appropriate.  I recommend having one of each on hand.  That way, as you’re reading the translation, if you find a passage or verse that is particularly confusing, you can read how the interpretation/adaption phrases it.

Which Translation?
If you’re over 50, odds are good that you’re most familiar with the King James Bible – commissioned by King James I of England and published in the early 17th century.  Due to the expense of translation work, printing & copying, and other logistical issues, this has been the most popular English version of the Bible until the late 20th century.  It’s not necessarily that it’s the best translation, it’s just the one that has been most widely available.  It’s not always easy to read, but it’s beautiful. 

There are other, more accurate translations that have emerged in the last 40 years or so.  The standby for many people today is the New International Version (NIV).  Personally, I’m a fan of  the English Standard Version (ESV), a relatively new translation that I’ve heard some scholars feel is a more accurate translation than the NIV.  

Be aware that some organizations create their own Bibles based on their own translation work.  The benefit of sticking with an NIV or ESV is that the translation work has been done by a relatively broad cross-section of Christian academia.  You’re less likely to run across odd or polemical translation work.  However if you pick up a Bible from, say, a Jehovah’s Witness, you need to realize that they have their own translation of the Bible which supports some of their particular theology.

Denominational/Theological Orientation
Study Bibles often reflect the denominational theology from which they emerge.  They may use a common translation of the Bible (like the NIV or the ESV), but in the notes and other material which is included in the Bible, a denominational bias or theological preference is expressed.  A new Lutheran Study Bible is now available, and the study notes reflect Lutheran theology.  Other study Bibles accentuate non-Conservative or other various interpretative bias’ in the comments and notes that are included to help clarify the Biblical text.  

Remember that it’s not really an issue of finding an unbiased study Bible.  We all have biases.  Those biases may be important or rather trivial, but we all have them.  Anything beyond just the bare Biblical text is likely to express a certain preference or belief about what the text is really trying to say.  The web site I link to above does a pretty good job of indicating the theological bias that different study Bibles reflect.

Additional Resources
Study Bibles usually come with lots of additional information.  In addition to introductory notes to each book of the Bible, they generally have an index of terms or a concordance.  Many have maps and time lines.  Some have devotional material from Christian writers through the ages.  Many will cross reference verses with one another, so you are informed if one verse is quoting another verse.  Sometimes Jesus’ words are highlighted in red type.  

Figure out what sorts of resources are important to you in a Bible, and shop accordingly.  There are also online tools available to assist with Bible study.  One that I like is eSword.  This is a downloadable, free interface for reading and studying the Bible.  The application is simple but robust – and you decide exactly what sorts of tools, translations, and other details you want to be able to access.  You can download many different translations and adaptations for free.  Some others require a small fee.  You can also download outdated versions of traditional commentaries, dictionaries,  and other resources.  Often these versions are from the early 20th century, but they can still be helpful.  You also can download a Greek version of the New Testament, and a Hebrew version of the Old Testament, in case you want to try your hand out with the original languages.  I wouldn’t say that the free original language translations are necessarily the most academically respected (and scholars have their own preferences for different reasons), but they’re good enough to get the hang of, and include auto-linking to downloadable dictionaries of Greek & Hebrew words.  You’re not going to teach yourself Greek or Hebrew this way, but it’s interesting all the same.

I like using this tool because you can highlight a specific link, and then examine how that one verse has been rendered in however many different Bible versions you’ve installed.  How does the NIV translate it compared to the ESV?  What is the Greek word that is being translated that way, and what are some of the basic definitions of that term?  Cool stuff.  There are better packages for studying the Bible on your computer, but you’ll be paying potentially hundreds of dollars for them.  Until you get to the point that you’re willing to do that, eSword is a great resource.

What study Bibles do you use, and why?  


Bearing One Another’s Burdens

February 11, 2010

Like a bunch of other people, my family was informed by our insurance provider a few weeks ago that our rates would be going up by nearly 40% effective March 1.  Since I’m going to be without a full-time job effective March 1, this is really poor timing.  I’m not sure it would be good timing even if I wasn’t going to be out of a full-time job.  But it’s certainly not good at the moment.

In my denominational polity, most of our professional church workers are enrolled in a comprehensive health/life insurance and retirement program.  By all accounts, it’s a really good program, although I’ve heard rumors that there is beginning to be talk of not being able to meet obligations on retirement payments to some degree.  The drawback to the program is that it’s very expensive.  A small group of insured people means that the per-insured cost is pretty steep.  Since the congregation I was called to in 2007 was very small and struggling financially, and to make a point as I started my ministry among them, I told them that I wasn’t going to accept our denominational insurance/retirement plan because it was too expensive.  Funds were tight, things needed to get done, and I wanted to demonstrate that I was not here to milk these people.  By choosing an individual health insurance plan for my family, the congregation saved over 50% of what the costs would have been to them.  I then asked that the savings be used to pay a good chunk towards health insurance for our church administrator and pre-school staff, something I was told had been a goal of the congregation’s for some time, but they had never found the wherewithal to actually make it happen.

All of which is probably irrelevant.  But I’m in a nostalgic mood. 

I’ve been investigating less expensive medical insurance coverage for my family.  I think we’ve come up with a solution which, while not cheap, will save us some money in the coming months – certainly compared to what our coverage costs were going to jump to in two weeks.  However, in the course of evaluating options, I’ve discovered an incredibly fascinating alternative.

Christian medical cost sharing.

This isn’t insurance.  It’s a voluntary program.  Members covenant to live healthy Christian lifestyles (watching their weight, not taking drugs, minimizing drinking, etc.), to practice Christian concern for one another (sending notes of encouragement to other members who are suffering, praying for those who are in medical need), and where members commit a certain amount per household each month towards the medical expenses of others.  I’ve found two programs thus far.  They differ slightly in their approaches, but the overall idea is the same.  Christians assist other Christians with their medical expenses, and their own medical expenses  are also shared with other Christians.  While I had heard of these in vague ways in the past, I’d never checked into them. 

Samaritan Ministries is the first one that I discovered, through a high school friend I reconnected with on Facebook.  The monthly household contribution is not called a premium.  You don’t send it to a provider.  Rather, each month you are directed to another member of Samaritan Ministries who has reported (and the organization has verified) a legitimate medical need.  Any amount over $300 and under $100,000 is eligible for being shared with the network members.  There is a separate, voluntary program for expenses beyond $100,000.  Your money goes directly to someone else in need, and you also pray for them and send notes of encouragement.  If you have a medical need, you become the recipient of direct financial aid, encouragement, and prayers.  They have over 13,000 members.

Medi-Share is the second of these organizations I’ve examined.  It’s similar in function.  However, you send your monthly contributions to Medi-Share rather than directly to another person.  Also, you have the ability to choose what the equivalent of your annual household deductible is going to be.  The higher the deductible you choose, the lower your monthly costs.  A 20% discount is also available if you meet certain health criteria pertaining to weight.  Annual deductible options range from $500/year for single people under the age of 30, to $10,000 for a family household.  I wasn’t able to see how many members are in this program, but they’ve been around since 1993.

Both organizations make it clear that they are not insurance.  You remain liable for your own medical bills.  The organizations negotiate discounts with your medical provider, and then your need is shared with members of the networks.  There’s no guarantee that you will get any – let alone all – of your medical bills paid.  But the intent is that you’re going to be assisted – a lot.  My friend indicates that they’ve never had a medical need go unmet by the members of their network.  She said on one or two occasions, only 85% – 90% of their medical needs were covered, but that’s better than the co-insurance rates on many health insurance policies. 

Has anyone else out there had experience or insight into these programs?  They’re totally fascinating – both theologically and from a more practical perspective.  While it’s not something we’re going to do right this minute, it’s something that I want to look into doing in the future. 

I’m Ok, You’re Probably Going to Need Some Work

February 10, 2010

I came across an interesting reference here, to this actual site/article.  I commented on the first site, but not the second site.  The issue at play is the role of introverts in the church.  The bigger question, it would seem, is whether or not introversion is really something that needs to be fixed or changed if someone is a Christian (and I think our society at large would extend that question in general, rather than limit it to the realm of church). 

People like extroverts.  I have a sister-in-law and brother-in-law who are extroverts.  I envy them.  The ease with which they meet people and talk with others, opening themselves to a certain extent and welcoming total strangers into relationship.  A good colleague in ministry is the same way.  And in our communal living experiment in St. Louis a few years ago, one of the couples we lived with were very extroverted.  I often marveled at how people were drawn to them, almost like moths to a flame.  It’s hard not to envy extroverts.

For us introverts, things are harder.  We don’t meet people as easily.  We’re less comfortable in large groups.  We prefer smaller settings.  Some introverts (myself included) are very good at forming deep relationships with people.  Whereas extroverts often seem to know a lot of people at a relatively surface level, introverts are more inclined to know fewer people, but at a deeper level.  There are amazing benefits to both personality types.  But our culture likes extroverts more, and this is seeping into church as well.

The original article has some interesting things to say which aren’t highlighted in the excerpt at Veith’s site.  I like the original site better, as it validates some of the observations I made on Veith’s site.  I like validation

My comment on Veith’s site was this:

It’s easy to quickly move into looking at introversion as a challenge, and extroversion as the ideal. Many of the comments here have this implicit assumption. The introverts sort of feel bad that they are introverted, and the extroverts feel bad that the introverts feel bad. There are benefits to both, but we have to know how to allow these orientations to work together, rather than hoping that the other type was more like us in some way.

My wife and I initiated an experiment in Christian communal living a few years ago when I was at seminary. This was one of the fundamental challenges we faced – my wife and I are introverts, and 3/4 of the other two couples were extroverts. The assumption was that if we were just more like them, things would be better. And while we sought to be understood, our assumption was that they had a few things to learn from us as well.

I’ve prayed and talked often about partnering with an extrovert to help build a church. Extroverts meet people easily and seem comfortable talking in ways that others find very winsome. Introverts seem to have greater abilities in forming deep relationships with a few people. I have talked about it in terms of extroverts having advantages in the breadth of numbers of people they meet and interact with, whereas introverts have advantages in the depth of the relationships they form with people.

To my mind, extroverts show great promise in terms of inviting people into worship, sharing the excitement they have about what’s going on at their church, and following up with people they’ve talked to. Introverts offer promise in terms of discipling, teaching the faith and helping to ground those new to the faith.

How does this address the issue of meet & greet situations in a church? I think Philip’s comment is key here – the issue of the passing of the peace is not an issue of being chatty with one another. There are Scriptural precedents and directives as to what this time should be used for. Aside from the extrovert/introvert issue, there’s the reality of clannish behavior, where some people are ignored or excluded while others are warmly and affectionately greeted. I think this is an important area for some good pastoral thought and theological study.

As Christians grow together in a community, people should also be getting to know one another to the point where we know that “Bob” (name chosen totally at random and not related to any of the above posters!) prefers a simple “Peace of Christ” and a quick handshake, while “Suzy” (same disclaimer) likes a hug as well. Both introverts and extroverts need to move beyond the delimiters of classification to seeing one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, members of the same family who need to be loved, appreciated, and accommodated to the best of our ability – even if it’s not our natural preference. If everyone is doing this, then neither the extrovert or the introvert has to crawl as far out of their comfort zones.

Updates on Food

February 9, 2010

Nancy inquired, based on an earlier blog, about things that my wife and I are doing to try and eat healthier.  I referred her to my post from a year ago, but thought that something a little more extensive might be merited. 

First off, we’re amateurs.  We love to cook, and we love to eat.  But we’re by no means experts, nor do we currently live up to the high expectations that we hold out for ourselves.  Like most folks, we’re attempting to do some smart things, gradually changing the way we eat to hopefully provide better nutrition.  There are lots of good resources out there on this topic.  I’m not going to attempt to point you to them, but rather encourage you to a) write in with your recommendations on books, websites, video clips, whatever that have helped you make changes in your eating habits, and b) check into your local community.  The movement towards natural eating is gaining ground, and you don’t have to live in a rural community to have support groups and other like-minded people.

I like the term natural eating.    It doesn’t have the self-righteous smack of smarter eating or healthier eating, though it incorporates concepts those smarmy terms have associated with them.  I find that eating more naturally is a natural extension of my faith – though certainly not one that has salvific connotations.  We were created as stewards, and stewards have more to think about than what’s easiest/best for themselves.  Stewards take a big-picture approach to live and their role in it.  For most of mankind’s history, natural eating was, well, natural.  There weren’t other options. 

However for at least two (or perhaps four) generations, we’ve been led away from eating food in its natural state to eating food in a processed state.  There are lots of reasons for the processing.  To extend shelf-life, to make the food easier to prepare, to reduce cooking times, to change the flavors – the list probably goes on for a long ways.  I’m going to assert that overall, processed food is intended to save us time.  However, the cost for that saved prep time is that the nutritional content of the food is reduced, and there are a bevy of less-than-healthy things added into the food in the form of preservatives.  Natural eating acknowledges that it takes time to prepare food, and that this is time well spent.  Not everyone’s schedules will allow for this additional time.  But I also believe that we control much more about our schedules than we generally let on, and that if something is important, we make time for it.

Before you continue on, I think you have to do something very important as you set out on the broad road to eating more naturally.  You need to determine what your goals are.  For example, my sister-in-law is raising two young boys with cystic fibrosis.  Her blog details her quest to find healthy, gluten-free and high-calorie meals and snacks that she can prepare for them, since gaining and maintaining weight is a crucial matter for their well-being.  Our family isn’t looking to pack in the calories.  Other people have other health concerns – such as minimizing sugar or sodium intake, or avoiding foodstuffs that they have allergies to.  These different goals will result in different approaches and outcomes.  Know what your goals are.  Is it to eat more naturally?  To eliminate empty calories?  To eat less meat?  Be specific initially.  You can always add other goals down the road if you find satisfaction with attaining your initial goal.  But setting too broad a goal initially can overwhelm you and cause you to give up.

Our goals are to reduce the amount of processed food in our diet, and to eat a variety of healthy things.

So, what do we do in our house to try and eat more naturally?

1.  Read Labels. 
And I mean really look at them.  Not just the front, but the back.  Especially the back.  The front is designed to entice you to buy the product over and against other competing products.  The back is where they tell you the stuff they’re forced to tell you.  Look at serving size and determine how many servings you’re likely to consume to get the full impact  of the nutritional data.  Look not just at calories and fat content, but sugar and salt content.  Learn that sugar has a variety of names and forms, and companies legally use these different names and forms so that it might seem like the product is healthier than it really is.  Yes, ingredients are generally listed in descending order based on quantity in the product.  But a product that lists ingredients 4-7 as sugar, high fructose corn syrup and fruit juice is probably telling you that the number one ingredient in the product by volume is sugar in one form or another. 

Understand the difference between phrases such as ‘all natural’, ‘organic’, ‘pesticide free’, etc.  Understand that just because a product says “50% less salt” doesn’t mean that it’s low-sodium.  Understand that sugar and salt are added to a dizzying array of products that you would never have guessed would contain salt and sugar.  Our taste buds have been conditioned to crave and expect these things.  They’re everywhere.

2.  Adjust Recipes
We find quite often that recipes that we used to use pre-processed items in (tomato sauce/paste, chicken/beef stock, etc.) could have certain ingredients reduced because they were also in the pre-processed things we were adding.  We could lower the salt we added to some ingredients, for example.  Remember you can always salt something more if it really needs it – but you can’t make something less salty.  Feel free to experiment with reducing salt (and sugar) in recipes to see how they taste.

3.  Don’t Buy Bad Stuff
We generally don’t have cookies, cake, pies, ice cream, candy, and other assorted other items in our house.  We have them on special occasions, but not as a daily part of life.  Because if we have them on hand, we eat them.  It’s much easier to rely on planning rather than willpower to change your eating habits!  You’ll get used to not having the stuff around after a while – and you’ll enjoy it immensely more when you do have it! 

My wife and I aren’t big snackers – but our kids are.  Keep healthy snacks around as alternatives to chips and other processed options.  Our kids love to munch on fresh fruit, baby carrots, and various types of nuts – particularly pistachios.  They also munch on tortilla chips and pretzels, as well as Cheerios.  Nobody’s perfect.

4.  Drink Water
I grew up with a deep love of Coca Cola.   While I wasn’t allowed to have much of it while I was younger, when I became a teenager, it became a dietary staple.  I’m not sure about where you live, but I grew up in the desert.  Which meant that we had access to beverages in container sizes that would boggle (and drown) many developing nations.  Circle-K and 7-11 sold (and probably still sell) fountain drinks in half-barrel sizes.  It was nothing for me to chug down 64-oz of Coca Cola a day.  It was 120  degrees outside.  It was a matter of survival.  Sort of. 

I never imagined that I could give up Coca Cola,
but it’s been almost three years since I did.  I’ve recently allowed myself to have one, and I find that while it’s still incredibly, mind-bogglingly good with pizza, it’s not the same as it used to taste.  I don’t need it.  I get my caffeine from tea and on some occasions, coffee.  Soda adds a ton of sugar and calories without giving you *anything* nutritional in return – and in fact giving you a fair number of things that *aren’t* good for you.  Remember that Coca-Cola is used to clean the corrosion off of your terminals on your car battery.  No matter how good it tastes on your tongue, it can’t be that good for your body!

Many folks have made the switch to diet sodas, or bottled ‘energy drinks’ or ‘enhanced water’ products.  These all contain sugar.  You can get the added minerals and vitamins from other sources without sucking down the extra calories and sugars. 

I tend to believe we were designed to primarily drink water.  It does good things for our bodies, and is relatively inexpensive.  We filter our water through a Britta filter to make it a little nicer tasting, and perhaps a little cleaner.  Don’t buy bottled water – the plastic leaches into the water and is not good for you.

5.  Eat at Home
We eat out from time to time, but not very often.  When we do eat out, it’s usually for ethnic food or things that we have not yet made at home.  We make pizzas from scratch (courtesy of the dough cycle on our bread machine, and a kick-butt blender that gives us instant tomato sauce from whole tomatoes).  I eat out more than the rest of my family due to my work schedule, but that’s something I hope to draw under control over time.  Eating out is more expensive than eating at home – even if you’re using organic ingredients.  As you get more comfortable in cooking, you’ll find that you like the taste of your food more than food you eat out (at least we do).  Save money, eat better (better meaning not just healthier but also fancier!), and wean yourself off of eating out except for those times when you’re really too pooped or busy to cook.

6.  Develop Some Good Core Meals
We like to invite people to our home for dinner, and we’ve developed over the  years a half-dozen different meals that our family loves and have a proven track record with guests.  We’re familiar enough with the recipes and the processes involved that we can usually prep much of it in advance so we aren’t running around with our heads cut off.

Cooking can be overwhelming because there are so many options out there.  By developing a few core meals that you know you’re good at, you develop confidence and have a go-to repertoire of meals that you can fall back on when you aren’t feeling particularly creative or adventurous.

7.  Involve the Family
If the family enjoys cooking, you’re more likely to do it more consistently than if it’s all on your shoulders.  Kids can help prep foods by grating cheese, or setting the table.  Kids like to help and are naturally fascinated by stuff like cooking.  Plus, they like to munch, which gives them additional incentive to be involved.  It might take more time, but it will pay dividends over time to involve your kids and spouse in meal preparation.

8.  Grow Things Yourself
Spices and herbs can be outrageously priced in the stores, whether you’re buying ‘fresh’ or dried.  Yet you can grow lots of common herbs in window boxes and have access to fresh herbs (without pesticides or herbicides) whenever you want.  If you have the space for it, consider planting a garden.  There are lots of online resources to help you create a garden whether you have nothing but a slab of concrete, or an extensive patch of actual dirt.  Learn what grows best in your area, and in what seasons.  Landscape with trees and shrubs that provide fruit or veggies.  Make your environment work for  you, by working with your environment.  

Although my wife swears I’m crazy, I really do want to try raising hens for eggs.  Many cities allow you to keep chickens (not roosters!), but have requirements about how you keep them and how many you can have.  Check with your local zoning regulations to determine if this is an option for you.  Sharing eggs with neighbors might be a way of winning over skeptical neighbors! 

9.  Adjust to Sticker Shock
Eating healthier can be pricey.  Buying fresh things instead of frozen or canned can be more costly – but the taste is far, far better.  Buying certain things organic is pricier.  Learn which things you should buy organic and what sorts of things aren’t as critical (general rule of thumb – if you eat the outer skin/peel/whatever, organic is the way to go).  Learn what grows in your area, and what the growing seasons are.  Things are less expensive when they’re local and in season.  You’re going to pay a premium for strawberries in January – unless you happen to live in Southern California!

10. Process Things Yourself
What I said earlier is true – oftentimes what we’re paying for in our food is a savings in time.  It’s possible to make all sorts of things for yourself at home rather than buying them in their finished form at the grocery store.  Invest in a bread machine and your cost per loaf will drop to under $1 in no time – and you control exactly what you put into it!  You can purchase yogurt makers to make your own yogurt.  Pizza dough can be made in a bread maker.  Juice tomatoes for fresh tomato sauce instead of buying it in a can where they’ve added preservatives and salt.  Make your own tomato soup instead of buying it premade.  Juice your own fruits (& veggies) to create healthy smoothies for the kids, or fresh soups.  Spend 30 minutes to prep a batch of homemade salsa instead of buying a jar of it.  Boil the carcass of a baked chicken to make your own chicken stock (seasoned to your taste, and with far less salt than the canned stuff you can buy at the grocery). 

Ok.  I’m tired of thinking about it.  These are some more extensive starter ideas.  Some are crazy.  Some might be doable.  To me, you need to be educated about what you’re putting into your body, and then you can start making decisions about whether or not you should *keep* putting that stuff into your body.  Time is just as valuable – if not more so – than actual money these days.  If you’re willing to invest some time each week, you can eat better, eat healthier, save money, and pass on valuable lessons to your kids. 

On a final note, don’t feel like you have to do these things alone!  Band together with neighbors or friends & family to create support groups where you can share ideas and keep one another motivated.  We know people that gather on a regular basis to can fruits & veggies together for an entire day, and then they’re done with it for the season!  Consider taking turns hosting dinner with local friends & family – you could end up cooking a lot less frequently, while learning more recipes.  Food is not simply a matter of me putting something into my body – it’s an inherently relational activity. 

I hope to hear other thoughts, suggestions, disagreements, etc. from y’all!

‘Splain, Please?

February 6, 2010

I don’t claim to be a expert in international politics.  Or domestic politics.  Or even breakfast cereals.  But I like to think I have some level of common sense that can be applied to each of these situations, albeit at a less informed level than someone who makes them their life work.

So as I understand it, Honduras had a president.  He was acknowledged both at home and abroad to be doing things illegally, attempting to circumvent the Constitutional workings of his own government in order to push an agenda that would have ultimately dismantled that Constitution.  He was not upholding his oath to operate as an elected leader.  I can understand this.

After a repeated pattern of this behavior, and after refusing to change his behavior to meet Constitutional requirements, he was evicted by his country in a bloodless coup.  He was sent into exile, and an interim president was appointed to oversee the four months until a new national election would be held.  I can understand this.

The international community roundly condemned this political move by the Honduran government, and suspended international assistance.  This is reasonable.  After all, a coup can result in a lot of things that nobody anticipated.  It could have resulted in an even less scrupulous person taking control.  It could have resulted in the military declaring itself in charge.  It could have led to the unraveling of the Constitution.  It would seem reasonable to make it clear to the transitional government that it was being watched.  I can understand this. 

Based in part of international outcry, the ousted president – who, by the way, would not be eligible for re-election even if he had not been ousted from the presidency – sneaks back into his country and sleeps in the Brazilian embassy, hoping to be reinstated to power.  Over the course of several months of negotiations, he ultimately refuses to cooperate in helping to legitimize the interim government in the eyes of the international community.  I certainly don’t understand this.

The interim president does exactly what he’s supposed to do – he keeps the peace relatively well, holds the elections in November (elections that he is not eligible to run in, so it’s not as though he’s hoping to become president), and there is a victor.  The international community refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of the newly elected president, even though there isn’t much evidence of any sort of wrongdoing.  There have been limited allegations of suppression of opposition supporters, but these haven’t gotten much airplay, which makes me wonder how accurate they are.  The ousted president is finally sent into permanent exile as the newly elected president is sworn in.  I can understand this.

And now, nobody knows what to do.  The newly elected president has declared amnesty for everyone involved in the coup in June.  He has offered normalization of trade relations with all of Honduras’  neighboring countries.  But Latin American countries are uncertain about recognizing the new government.  At issue is not whether or not the election itself was conducted properly, but the fact that the ousted president refused to cooperate to provide legitimacy to the election process.  Deals were attempted to garner his support and allow his participation, but he ultimately rejected them all.   Europe and the United States have refused to resume their assistance to Honduras, despite the resolution of this situation in an almost unbelievably peaceful and legal manner.  The main problem is that an elected leader – who clearly refused to follow the Constitution he was elected to uphold, who repeatedly demonstrated after his ousting from power that he was more concerned with his own personal fortunes and situations, and was willing to threaten the country he claimed to love to try and safeguard his own interests – was ousted from office without using the ballot box. 

Our own Declaration of Independence safeguards the right of the people to protect themselves from the depredations of their own government, whether elected or not.  Our founding fathers clearly understood that this right must exist, and must not be delegitimized, if governments are to be held accountable to the people they are created to serve, and if tyranny and oppression are to be avoided.  Obviously, drastic steps such as coups are to be a last resort, when all other legal attempts at curbing excesses and offenses have failed. 

Maybe I’m missing some fundamental information here that isn’t available in mainstream media press.  If so, please ‘splain it to me so I can be better informed and sound less like a dolt for a change.  But we appear to be acting rather inconsistently as a nation.  We profess to love democracy and liberty, and yet are punishing a country for validating exactly these two things.  In a region fraught with instability and abuse of every kind, we ought to be praising the Honduran people and government for the way they have conducted themselves during this whole situation, restore normalization of relations, and put this ugly incident in the past where it belongs.  Instead, we are continuing to punish a people who appear to understand more clearly than we do that democracy and liberty at times have very real costs associated with them. 

That’s something every American ought to understand clearly.