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Monday, November 28, 2005

once in a lifetime

Loren Eiseley was a scientist and a naturalist, but he had a mystic's eye.

Once in a lifetime, perhaps, one escapes the actual confines of the flesh. Once in a lifetime, if one is lucky, one so merges with sunlight and air and running water that whole eons, the eons that mountains and deserts know, might pass in a single afternoon without discomfort. The mind has sunk away into its beginning among old roots and the obscure tricklings and movings that stir inanimate things. Like the charmed fairy circle into which a man once stepped, and upon emergence learned that the whole century had passed in a single night, one can never quite define the secret; but it has something to do, I am sure, with common water.

- Loren Eiseley, The Immense Journey

Saturday, November 26, 2005

alternative christmas gifts

Are you tired of the over-commercialization of Christmas? Or just don't know what to give that person who has everything? Take a look at Alternative Gifts International. Your gift will go to someone who really needs it, and you'll get cards to give your friends and relatives, letting them know the details about the gift you've given in their name. I've participated with AGI for a few years now, and many of my relatives appreciate the AGI cards more than any other gifts.

For other Christmas giving opportunities, take a look at the gift catalogs from World Vision (hat tip to Shane Raynor of Wesley Blog) and the Heifer Project.

If you have someone you really must give a gift to, but you still want to benefit industrious people in poorer nations, consider buying presents from A Greater Gift (hat tip to LutheranChik, who has a lot of other good suggestions in her blog) or Ten Thousand Villages.

Got any other suggestions? I'd love to hear them!

Wednesday, November 23, 2005


Note: All links in this post open by default in a separate window.

Overall, I've got it pretty good. I have a roof over my head. I have enough food to eat. I have a college education and a full time job with health insurance. Many people aren't so fortunate.

I've never lived under an oppressive government where I could be beaten or sent to prison simply for speaking my mind or for practicing my religion. Many people aren't so fortunate.

I've never been the victim of a hate crime as a result of my skin color, religious beliefs, or sexual orientation. Many people aren't so fortunate.

I haven't been driven from my home due to war or natural disaster. Many people aren't so fortunate.

I've never been conscripted into the military or forced to work in a sweatshop. I've never had a family member disappeared. Many people aren't so fortunate.

On this Thanksgiving day, please join me in offering a prayer for all the ones who have little to be thankful for.

For the poor and the oppressed, for the unemployed and the destitute, for prisoners and captives, and for all who remember and care for them, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

from the Book of Common Prayer

Monday, November 21, 2005

letting go

A Buddhist parable:

A monk and his teacher were walking along the road when they came to a river with no bridge. A woman in a long dress was standing on the bank. She asked the two men if they would carry her across the river.

The younger monk averted his eyes, for theirs was a strict sect that did not permit its members to speak to women, let alone touch them.

The teacher, however, said to the woman, "I will gladly carry you across." He lifted her onto his back and crossed the river. He set her down at the other bank, and the two monks continued their journey.

The younger monk was horrified and outraged. He walked in silence for several miles. Finally he said to his teacher, "How could you do such a thing!? You know that we are not to speak to, let alone touch, a woman. Yet you carried her on your back! How could you do such a thing?"

The teacher looked at him and said, "I set her down at the river bank. Why do you still carry her?"

Friday, November 18, 2005

evangelism and pluralism

I believe in a God of love and grace. I think God extends a measure of grace to all of us, even before we are capable of responding. (In the Wesleyan tradition, this is known as "prevenient grace".) I don't believe God's grace is conditional on our finding the right formula or reciting a "sinner's prayer". I think that, like the Athenians who built an altar to an unknown God, people around the world who may not ever have heard of Jesus might nevertheless have a real relationship with God.

Earlier this month I attended Seminary Weekend at my church. The topic was Evangelism in the Local Church. I was a little apprehensive, given the subject matter. Still, it was a good learning experience, and I even came out of the weekend with a newfound appreciation for evangelism.

The instructor was Dr. Douglas Powe of the St. Paul School of Theology. He started the class by offering a few definitions of evangelism. The one I liked best said (very loosely paraphrased) that evangelism involves inviting people into a transforming relationship with God. Dr. Powe then looked at evangelism through the filter of the words of the Lord's Prayer. He brought a very practical approach to the subject -- for each phrase we not only studied related Bible passages, he had exercises for us to integrate what we were learning into our lives.

One of these exercises was the Lectio Divina I blogged about previously. Another exercise involved thinking about our stories and how they are integrated with the gospel story. Yet another involved looking at our church in terms of the seven churches described in Revelation 2-3.

Within the discussion, Dr. Powe talked about questionable motives and good motives for evangelism. Among the questionable motives are: Preserving the institution; Scaring people; and Expanding the church.

Some of the people who read this blog are "unchurched", and I'm sure those of you who are in that category have probably been exposed to one or more of those types of evangelism. It's a shame, because evangelism done for the wrong reasons is easily seen as being inauthentic. It often drives sincere people away from church.

Dr. Powe argued that there is only one good reason for evangelism: Love of God. During the question and answer session, he was asked to elaborate on that. He changed the subject and started talking about college football, particularly his favorite team, the Ohio State Buckeyes. Now I live in Kansas, and I could care less about a football team in Ohio. Besides, I'm more of a basketball fan anyway. But I could tell that Dr. Powe was passionate about the Buckeyes. His point was that if we truly have faith in God, we ought to be able to talk about our faith in an authentic way -- not to manipulate people, but to share about something that is important to us.

If honest evangelism is about inviting people into a transforming relationship with God, one of the side effects of talking authentically about God is a deepening of the transformation in our own lives. Conversely, if our focus is on God and on our own relationship with God, evangelism will be authentic and honest. It's not really about changing anyone else. It's about changing ourselves.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

what others are saying

What's the best way to protect traditional marriage? A blog called Kung Fu Monkey has some thoughts.

Josh Tinley explains why he would rather have retailers wish him Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas.

It's not often you'll see me link to a National Review article, but this one is a must read. The author is a Jewish chaplain in Iraq who recited the Koran to a dying Muslim boy.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

pat robertson vs. the bible

Radical cleric Marion G. "Pat" Robertson cursed a small Pennsylvania town Thursday. Robertson last gained national attention in August, when he advocated the assasination of the president of Venezuela.

Lots of people throughout the blogosphere have commented on this story, but I'd like to look at it from a different angle. Let's suppose, hypothetically, that Robertson's unspoken thesis is true: God is more concerned about the teaching of intelligent design in science classes than about caring for the sick and needy. If that were true, would Robertson's response be appropriate?

I've put together a side-by-side comparison of Robertson's words and some quotes from the Bible. See if you can determine which column more accurately represents the true nature of God.

Pat RobertsonBible
I'd like to say to the good citizens of Dover: if there is a disaster in your area, don't turn to God, you just rejected Him from your city.Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. - Joel 2:12-13
And if that's the case, don't ask for His help because he might not be there.Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. - Psalm 139:7-10


Wednesday, November 09, 2005

living wage

Note: This post includes a lot of statistics. My apologies in advance. If you absolutely cannot bear to read all the numbers, you can skip to my main point.

It seems to me that it's time to overhaul the U.S. minimum wage law.

The last change to the minimum wage was in 1997 -- eight years ago -- when it was raised to $5.15 per hour. Since then, inflation, modest though it has been, has had devastating effects on the nation's most vulnerable citizens.

There are several factors involved in calculating the inflation rate, and several ways to average them together to get the overall rate. Even by the most conservative estimate, the cost of living has risen by more than 17% between 1997 and 2005. That $5.15 from 1997 will purchase only $4.37 worth of goods in today's dollars. Put another way, today's minimum-wage earner would have to make $6.07 to have the same buying power as the minimum-wage earner from 1997.

Again, that's the most conservative estimate. By one estimate, the cost of living has risen by nearly 24% since 1997. By this measure, minimum-wage earners would need to make $6.38 to have kept up with inflation since 1997.

The box below has links to four inflation calculators. Check them out if you'd like to see effects of inflation over time.

Inflation calculators:
Bureau of Labor Statistics
Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis
CSG Network (requires javascript)

But that's only part of the story. Even at $6.38, a person cannot support a family. Working 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year at $6.38, the total income would be $13,270. How can we expect anyone to raise a family on that level of income?

The 2005 poverty guideline published by the Department of Health and Human Services lists the poverty line for a family of four at $19,350. A full-time worker would need to make $9.30 per hour to reach that income level. The current minimum wage is about 45% below the poverty line.

It's time to raise the minimum wage, and it's time to ensure that a full-time worker can afford to support a family. As more Americans fall into poverty year after year, even in the midst of the world's largest economy, it is time to take a look at this nation's commitment (or lack thereof) to its citizens. Do we want to make the rich richer and the poor poorer? Do we want to eliminate the social mobility that has been our hallmark since this country was founded? Or do we want to start giving all Americans a chance to succeed, regardless of the social class they were born into?

The minimum wage law should be rewritten so a full-time worker can keep a family out of poverty. This concept is known as a living wage. Index the minimum wage to, say, 110% of the previous year's poverty line for a family of four. For 2006 that would be $10.23 an hour, nearly double the current minimum. Those with larger families might still not be able to make ends meet, but they would be much closer than they are now.

Some will argue that an increase in the minimum wage is counterproductive because companies will hire fewer workers. The evidence does not support this. Prior to the 1997 wage increase, the unemployment rate was dropping steadily, and it continued to drop until late 2000. This Bureau of Labor Statistics chart shows the monthly totals since 1990. Unemployment decreased despite the 1996 welfare reform law that pushed more people into the labor pool. Perhaps one of the keys to the late 1990s economic boom was that low-income people suddenly had money to spend.

But lately we've been going the other direction as a nation. As inflation erodes the gains made by low-income familes in the 1990s, our leaders promote tax breaks that put more money in the pockets of the nation's wealthiest citizens. The gap has increased to the point that one out of every eight Americans now lives in poverty.

The United States is a nation at a crossroads. Will we continue to oppress our most vulnerable citizens, or will we return to the values that made the U.S. a world leader?

It's time to make our minimum wage a living wage.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

lectio divina

In the comments to my last post, Monk-in-Training talked about Lectio Divina. I had heard the term before but did not know what it meant. When I read his description I immediately thought, I need to try reading the Bible like that. That was Thursday night.

My first chance came sooner than I expected.

Each year my church sponsors Seminary Weekend, in which a seminary professor comes to town and leads a weekend class. This was the weekened. I'll have more to say about it in a future post.

About an hour into class Friday afternoon, the professor had us turn to Mark 12:28-34, and said, "We're going to practice Lectio Divina with this passage." After going through the exercise we talked about what God was saying to us while we read.

The most amazing thing about my first experience with Lectio Divina was seeing how God spoke to each individual in the class. We didn't all have the same word "jump out", but each person heard something meaningful to him or her.

I'm not normally a person who can process thoughts quickly, and in many conversations I often don't think of a coherent response until later. But in this exercise the words came easily. So easily, in fact, that I was convinced they weren't from me.

I'm planning to look more into Lectio Divina. I only wish I had learned about it sooner.


Wednesday, November 02, 2005

scientific bible study?

An acquaintance of mine who is a medical researcher and a fundamentalist Christian was trying to explain why he considered his personal Bible study a scientific endeavor.

He would read a passage and make an observation about what it said (forming a hypothesis). Then he would look at other Bible passages talking about the same subject and see if they confirmed his initial reading (testing the hypothesis). If he found a discrepancy he would revise his initial hypothesis to accomodate the new data. Perfectly scientific.

It seems to me that this explanation fails on two levels.

First, the method is not truly scientific. It fails to take into account any evidence outside the Bible that might add to our understanding of the passage. Furthermore it has no place for peer review -- letting a disinterested party look at the data to see if the conclusion is reasonable.

Second, and more important, is that it is a mistake to think that Bible study should adhere to the scientific method.

Science is a relative newcomer in the history of human ideas, but it has come to dominate the modern perception of the world. The scientific method is so good at showing us how things work that it has transformed the way we think about the natural world. Prescientific ideas about nature are now seen as superstition. Belief in the supernatural is looked down on.

It's no wonder that a lot of people want to justify their beliefs scientifically, or to read the Bible as if it is a piece of "evidence that demands a verdict," in the words of one well-known apologist. The modern mindset demands objectivity, so some Christians try to take an objective, detached approach to the Bible.

But our ways are not God's ways. God doesn't treat us as mere objects. God reaches out to each of us subjectively, and therefore, when we read the Bible, we need to read it subjectively. The same passage might say one thing to me and another to you. That's part of the beauty of the Bible. God can use the same text to speak different messages to us, based on what each person needs. A detached, scientific approach to Bible study misses the personal messages that God can send us as we read.