Monday, August 31, 2009

Pots and Pans and Failures

I started seminary last week. Back to school, except this time 'round, I had no pre-conceived idea of what it would be like. For the past few years during my time at college, I could generally know what to expect when I walked into a new class at the beginning of a semester. This kind of knowledge lulled me into a state of ease and contentment. I knew for the most part that my classes would have their time of difficulty (usually two or three times a year, depending on tests and papers), but that in general they wouldn't require too much of my time or effort.

Not so in my new classes. I need every ounce of attention and focus inside of me in order to retain what I'm learning. I'm learning what Brother Lawrence termed "simple attention". He explains "simple attention" as the pathway He took to resting in the presence of God, allowing himself to be fully present in his current situation, not distracted by the events of the last few moments or the tyranny of the future.

This is a concept that is very difficult for me, especially with all the technology and other tools of distraction around me. Being fully present before the Lord is so essential in experiencing the joy of fellowship with Him, but it requires intentional self-sacrifice, a decision to shut off all other avenues that seek entrance into the mind. It's something that looks different for each of us as disciples of Christ. As a student, my distractions are different than those of someone juggling a job, marriage, or other commitment. But we are all the same in that we need the fellowship of the Lord.

Learning to "practice the presence of God" and to give Him my "simple attention" is proving to be a difficult journey, but one that has its rewards as well. With all the theology, hermeneutics, language, and Bible knowledge I'm learning in seminary, the garden of my heart can easily become crowded and choked with weeds if I am not attentive to keep the simple concept of "practicing the presence of God" before me continually. For what does it matter if I believe in Biblical authority yet never open the Bible to drink deeply from it? What does it matter if I know the ins and outs of Old and New Testament theology if it is not changing the way I treat other people?

Knowledge is good, but it puffs up. True wisdom is knowing Christ, and it starts with the fear of the Lord, being humble before Him. Only when I start with humility can I reach the higher plains of academia without becoming inflated by my own desperate ego. Simple attention. Practicing the presence of God.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

It's a new day

Early morning circles around me, the rising sun spreading its wings in the eastern sky outside my window. It is so still in the morning. The air seems to hold the expectations and hopes and fears of the day, waiting to exhale. It's mostly quiet, except for the random barking of the neighborhood dogs.

The rising of the sun each day reminds me of the evernew mercies of God. "For his mercies are new every morning". What a beautiful concept to remember. I need that mercy new today, just like I need to be reminded of the sacrifice of my Savior who defeated death and rose again to new life, offering me new life as well. The rising sun points to Jesus in that way, too.

Nature is laced with little reminders of God, and I can't think of a better way to start the morning than with a cup of good, strong, coffee, a Psalm, and a window with a view.

Monday, August 17, 2009

I found grace watching my computer die

So it's the night before my internship finishes for the summer, and I'm getting ready to ease into another long summer evening. As usual, I pop open my mac and check emails and baseball scores when my computer informs me that, to finish "updating" my computer, I must restart the computer. Easy enough. I've done it countless times through my three year journey with this particular computer. So I dutifully click the "Restart" button, and wait for my machine to rev to life again. And that is where the fun began...

As I'm waiting for the computer to restart, I go over and take a swig of water, trying to stay somewhat hydrated before my run later that evening, but when I come back to the computer, I see that it's stuck on the white apple start-up screen. 10 minutes later I start to get worried. This has never happened with my computer, hopefully it's just a little glitch, right? I reboot the computer several times, all with no luck. That darn white apple start-up page is the farthest it will go. After 30 minutes of this, I start to realize something very profound, and it causes me to slightly panic, kind of like that slow, horrible feeling you get when you realize you've locked your car keys in the car...

I'm an idiot. I haven't backed up my computer in 4 months. Not a single file, since the end of school, is safely backed-up on a thumb drive or external hard drive. They are, all of them, trapped inside my computer, hostages from their creator. (it's okay, you can laugh) It's at this point that I am kicking my self, well, at least i'm doing so in my head. How could I be so stupid? Tomorrow I'm presenting all of my files to my supervisor, and here I am with zero access to them. How great will that sound..."uh, so I lost all my files last night, sorry"...

In the midst of my internal panic and fascination with the new depths of stupidity that I had reached, I started to finally get a grip. Come on mark, you know a thing or two about computers, put that limited knowledge to some sort of use here. So i try the few tricks I know, but they are all hopelessly falling short, reminding me that I am utterly and completely out of control.

I need some sort of miracle here, or at least i need my computer to start acting properly. I've tried everything I know to do, but still I'm completely helpless, in need of some saving grace...

Fastforward 2 hours, in which time i've succumb to the realization that I won't get these files back. I've started the tricky process of rationalizing this bizarre event in my head, coming up with clever excuses to feed my supervisor tomorrow. But there's that sinking feeling down deep, realizing that nothing I can say will hide my idiocy. "You mean in 3 months you didn't back up one single file? mark, college degree taught you a lot, eh?"

I walk back to my computer, to the lost cause that it is, and give it a go one last time. It hems and haws, but then, strangely, and for reasons i still can't really quite put together, it comes back. Oh my goodness! I race to my room to get my external hard drive, sprinting up the stairs like i'm back in high school finishing a leg of the 4x100 meter relay. I get to my computer, plug the hard drive in, and set to work backing up all those crazy files. 30 minutes later, i'm done, and absolutely astonished at the events of the evening.

With my backup complete, I finally take that run i'd been gearing up for earlier in the evening, starting out way too fast and screwing up any notion of "pace" known to man. But I didn't care. It was great. I felt like a man with a monkey off his back. After cooling down, showering, and grabbing some water, I come back to the computer, turn it on, but get nothing. That's right, nothing...

Miraculously, in the long, slow, process of the death of my computer, I somehow got 30 minutes with it before it croaked. Like one of those old stories from the middle ages where the dying monk holds on to life until receiving his last rites, my computer somehow managed to give me 30 minutes before it finally died...

Needless to say, I gained a new perspective on mercy that evening. Undeserved, unmerited, mercy. I found grace watching my computer die.

Thursday, August 13, 2009


"For all men commend patience; few, however, they are, who are willing to suffer...For our worthiness, and the proficiency of our spiritual estate, consisteth not in many delights and comforts; but rather in thoroughly enduring great afflictions and tribulations." - Thomas a Kempis in The Imitation of Christ

"Life without Jesus is like a dry garden, baking in the sun. It is foolish to want anything that conflicts with Jesus. What can the world give you without Jesus? His absence is hell; his presence, paradise. If Jesus is with you, no enemy can injure you. Whoever finds Jesus has discovered a great treasure, the best of all possible good. The loss of him is a tremendous misfortune, more than the loss of the entire world. Poverty is life without Jesus, but close friendship with him is incalculable wealth." - Bernard Bangley, paraphrasing Thomas a Kempis

Monday, August 10, 2009

Summer: the best of

summer is, sadly, drawing slowly to a close. However, it's not quite over, and maybe even the best is yet to come. I thought I'd stop and describe a few of my favorite things about summer, so here we go:

Peaches: the soft, slightly fuzzy peach is one of my favorite summertime snacks. it's one of those fruits that I get more excited about as I eat. Each bite brings me more enjoyment, and the juicier the peach, the more fun it is. It's a total tactile experience.

Baseball: i'm not usually that excited about baseball in april or may, partly because i'm still in basketball mode, but once June hits, I usually start to slowly get excited about the baseball season. Maybe it's the fact that it's pretty much the only summertime sport to follow besides golf. Perhaps it's because the days are longer, and baseball just seems like the right thing to follow. Whatever the case, summertime is a great time to go to a ballpark and watch a good baseball game, or sit down on a weekend afternoon and snooze in between innings while in a comfortable chair. (maybe all of the above is an attempt to just rationalize my bordering-on-obsession with fantasy baseball)

Long Days: it's such a nice thing to experience the season of summer, when the sun stays afloat till almost 9 PM after going through winter, when darkness sets in before dinnertime. there are all sorts of things to enjoy about the longer days: more time to sit outside (if there's a good breeze), more reason to go on a dusk-inspired jog, even the simple joy of watching a nice sunset.

Good Music: okay, so i'm purposefully being vague here. insert your own favorite music for summer. mine always seems to be a mix of acoustic/groove/jazz. I'll go from listening to Mindy Smith to Woody Guthrie, to Guy Clark, to Art Tatum, to Wild Sweet Orange. And this summer, as it happens, my soundtrack for the summer happens to be the new cd from Wild Sweet Orange.

that's just a small list, and there's so much more. what are some of your favorite things about the summer?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

A Common Scene

A thin, silky ribbon of orange is all that is making it through the clouds tonight. Usually the sky is open, broad like a giant canvas and colorful as a stage set with props, but tonight the curtain of clouds obscures the usual drama of the setting sun. Even though the clouds are in the way, they create a drama of their own as they storm across the sky high above, marching in slow, subtle pursuit of the east.

My eyes wander for a moment from the teeming skies above and land on a different scene. The lake is far enough away so that it looks a little bit tamer than it looks right up close, and from my vantage point perched on a hill a hundred yards away, the ducks that call it home look like little toys. They flap their wings as they fly inches above the surface, crisscrossing the lake when they get tired of swimming. But plenty of them are content with swimming, and they glide silently across the water, leaving tiny wakes that turn into big V’s as they continue on their journey. I don’t know why they fly and swim from one side of the lake to the other, but am glad they do.

It is all a drama, and it is all unfolding in front of my eyes whether I am paying attention to it or not. It is all there, and it speaks timeless truths to the discordant life. Maybe I should stop to watch more often.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Boiling it Down

Sometimes I wonder how it is that each of us can have such a different perspective on life, arriving at conclusions as varied as the colors in a rainbow. It’s as if we all have on a different set of glasses, filtering our thoughts and lives through its unique perspective. It’s astonishing, really, how we can come to any kind of consensus at all when our lives are such complicated mazes of this and that. A perfectly normal event from one angle can be seen from another angle as a complete outrage. One person’s fight for freedom is another person’s act of sedition.

I’m seeing more and more that the method of “boiling it down”, “it” being situations, people, arguments, ideas, etc., is one of the worst ways to approach life, yet it is such a hard thing to unlearn. It goes like this: I’ve learned my whole life, through a wonderful education, that a quick shortcut to doing well in school is “boiling it down” to what you “need to know”. Don’t get lost in the trees and miss the forest. So, instead of really trying to wrap my brain around difficult concepts, I take the easier approach and memorize the acronym for the test, ready to sum up, in a nutshell, the main points of this argument or that theory.

It turns out that this method of processing information is terribly unsuited for really arriving at satisfying conclusions in life. But it just gets easier and easier to do. You quickly turn from boiling down the facts for the test to boiling down “those democrats” or “those republicans” to whatever label is easiest to understand. As this boiling down process starts to infect other areas of your life, it gets to be a kind of disease that paralyzes you from sympathizing with anyone that looks at life remotely differently than you do.

Before we know it, we end up looking around and all we see are people who look exactly like us, talk exactly like us, and think exactly like us. Maybe it’s easier this way, but it sure doesn’t involve any effort on our part to make our inner character translate to outer actions. The fact is, the most challenging and rewarding times in my life have come when I’ve been around people who’ve thought differently and approached life differently than I do. The summer I spent at Food for the Hungry with college students from all around the country, the year I spent on University Ministries council with people from different backgrounds, these were each moments in my life when my character was being sharpened.

These kinds of experiences have been good for me, I think, for several reasons. First of all, I’ve come to see the incredible value of truly listening to other people. I remember early on in my studies, one of my professors said that the whole idea of “putting yourself in the other persons shoes” was a terrible way to actually try and understand the perspective of someone else. And you know what, it’s true. It’s impossible for me to understand what another person is going through 95% of the time. But by opening my ears and heart and listening, truly listening, I can open up a flow of compassion that can speak to that person more than my feeble attempts to understand them. Listening really does matter.

I also found out quickly that one of the most important virtues I can seek from the Lord is wisdom. How do you know when to truly stand up for what you believe? How do you know when to shut up and listen? How do you, on the one hand, not cut off the other persons’ ear, and on the other stand up for what you believe even when it's not popular? It’s where the daily walk of faith is so vitally important, and where seeking after wisdom like a thirsty deer seeking water becomes a daily necessity. Wisdom is that intangible, and it’s only learned from the Father of wisdom. And, for those times when wisdom escapes me, it’s good to ask for forgiveness and seek reconciliation, for love covers a multitude of things.

I wonder how we each can see life so differently, but then again, maybe I’m glad that we do, because life wouldn’t be so interesting if everyone thought exactly like me.