Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Happiness research

Happiness is of course not the be all and end all of life-part of the Christian message in Holy Week is that there are some things worth being inconveinced for.

But thinking about the ways in which the church is intended to foster community, I was fascinated by this article by David Brooks about what leads to joy-connections with friends, with family, and a useful career more than simply income. I hope we can serve to increase joy for one another and ourselves.


Monday, March 29, 2010

Lectio and Luke 19

This week, our spiritual discipline is Lectio Divina-Holy Reading.

The purpose of Lectio Divina is to listen closely to the Biblical text, asking what it offers to us today, in this time and place. It can be done individually, or as a group, the text can be read silently or out loud, but the story is at the center.

Read the text once. Pay attention to what jumps out at you. Which words of phrases, images or ideas catch your attention? Why?

Read the text a second time. Pay attention to what emotions the text sparks in you. What do you feel in the text and around the text?

Read the text a third time. What suggestions, guidance, commands, invitations do you hear in this text? What is it inviting you to do?

Monday: Luke 19:28-40
Tuesday: Isaiah 50:4-9
Wednesday: Psalm 31:9-16
Thursday: Philippians 2:5-11
Friday: Luke 22:14-38
Saturday: Luke 23:26-49

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Silent worship

When I think of silence, the community that first comes to mind is the Society of Friends, or Quakers.
Since their founding in the mid 1600’s by George Fox, one of the hallmarks of worship among the Friends is silence. In the classic form, a worship service is ‘unprogramed’ where there is no formal order of worship, and consists mostly of silence, where believers wait in prayer for the light of Christ to speak from within. Sometimes people will share something that is sitting on their hearts, but this is spontaneous and undirected. For those of you who have never sat in silence with a group of people for an hour, it is an amazing experience. I’d recommend it.

Human beings are information seeking creatures-we love to have input to our eyes, ears, and mind. Sensory deprivation is actually one of the forms of torture that the US government used against prisoners, because being left without light and sound is deeply disconcerting to the human psyche-but there is something to be said for setting aside this need, and experiencing some discomfort in the deep silence of the world.

image from http://www.mountmellick.net/history/quakers/index.htm

Monday, March 22, 2010

Be still and know that I am God

The spiritual discipline for this week is silence-the prompt goes like this:

Sit in a comfortable place where you will not be interrupted. Turn off potential distractions, like the television and cell phone. This may need to be done after other people (namely children) have gone to bed. Consider lighting a candle.

Take a few deep breaths, and then settle into a regular rhythm of deep breathing, listening to your breath, listening to your body, and listening to God. Try to let your mind wander, not dwelling on the concerns of the day, and the stresses of life, focusing instead on what is going on inside.

Try to sit for at least 2 minutes the first day, looking to increase to 5 or 10 minutes by the end of the week.

Thinking about silence, the thing that always fascinates me most about the process is the task of becoming present in the silence in a healthy way, so that we can wait and listen, rather than fill the silence with the loud thoughts that clamor for our attention. Its called quieting the mind.

I acknowledge that the task of quieting the mind is quite challenging-our brains are not wired to be doing nothing. My mother (the yoga instructor) talks about the ‘monkey mind’ the part of our brains that is always chattering away, jumping from thought to thought, catching a hold of a fleeting thought, and following it down the rabbit hole to a whole host of worries. We can go from hmm…, its so peaceful here, to I’m sorry I have to get up soon, to once I get up, what do I need to do? to what are we going to have for dinner, to planning a grocery list and worrying about nutrition, money, and world hunger within a matter of seconds. This is the challenge of silence-that we want to fill the empty space with noise, to fill the absence with something useful or important or just stuff.  For many people, the time before falling asleep is the time for the monkey mind to run wild, with one concern going to another, the mind whirring with action when we crave rest.

This is part of the experience of silence-the outer noise can provide focus and calm for the inner noise, but I think there is something to be said also for letting that inner dialogue play itself out, and seeking quietness within.
There aren't any magic solutions that I know about-Mom’s suggestion is to let the busy thoughts float away on imaginary clouds, which I find useful, but certainly no panacea. It takes practice, oddly enough, to do nothing.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Decreased prison population

For those of us who worked through some reflections on the US prison system this last semester here is an interesting article on how the state prison population has declined this year. I hope it is a sign of things to come.


Sunday, March 14, 2010


I follow NCAA basketball a little bit, and this time of year everyone who follows NCAA basketball (and many who don't) fill out a bracket for the NCAA tournament, picking who wins each game. (I don't think there is an SLMF bracket yet, but if anyone out there wants to start one, I'll join).

I offer this as context to this story from the New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/15/sports/ncaabasketball/15score.html?ref=ncaabasketball . This article explains that people are very bad at picking upsets, and that in aggregate, people would do better just picking the higher seeds to win every game in the NCAA tournament, because in general these higher seeds are most likely to win (somewhere between 75-90%, most of the time).  The easiest example they provided is choosing whether a weighted event will occur-like say, guessing if a random card drawn from a deck will be a heart or not a heart.  Most people will pick not a heart about 75% of the time, and a heart 25% of the time, attempting to get every card right, but they end up picking less than 75% right, when if they just picked 'not a heart' every time, they would get 75%.  Same with upsets in the NCAA tournament.

This is very much true.  But there is a gaping logical hole in their argument: when picking a bracket, no one is trying to beat the average. They are trying to win (most bracket groups have between 1 and 3 winners). And in order to win, you have to take the risk of picking upsets, increasing the variance in your potential outcomes. If you want to maximize your correct number of picks, then picking all top picks is a useful way to do that (or, pick by who the gamblers in Las Vegas think will win, which usually beats picking just by the seeding), but if you want to win a bracket group, you have to lower your odds of doing the very best you can, to increase the odds of beating everyone else.

I mention this in this space for two reasons-one, huge logical fallacies by major national newspapers make me sad.

Second, I think there may be a bit of a parallel to our lives as Christians well.  There are some times when it is best to be conservative-to make the choices that maximize our own success, aiming for somewhere above average.  But in cases where there is a zero sum outcome-where consistently coming in above average will simply mean that you will definitely loose to fewer people, but will never win, then we have to make riskier decisions.  The trick is knowing which kind of situation is which, and probably blending the techniques to get the best of both worlds. 

So that is the question-as individuals or as a congregation. Do we want to chart a comfortable path most likely to lead to acceptable above average success, or do you dare for something tremendous, and increase the risk of failure and ridicule?

Grace and peace,

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


Tomorrow's fast is trying to go the whole day without meat.  I'll need to remember to get the Veggie Sub at Pastor Peer.

I still like my reflections on being vegetarian that I posted a few weeks ago, so if you did not read them, check them out again.


Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Electronic Reality

The fast suggestion for tomorrow is I think in some ways the most interesting:
E-mail fast-try to go the whole day without checking personal E-mail.

If you’re ambitious, you can add facebook to this fast if you’d like.

Our society has become very conditioned for rapid communication and constant contact. Think about how the use of mail, or the phone have changed from even 15 years ago, let alone what it would have been like in times of more uncertain communication only a few hundred years ago, not to mention the Apostle Paul communicating by hand delivered letter.

I think there are some really good things about this transformation in communication. I keep better track of my family, my friends from around the country, and the people at Saint Louis Mennonite Fellowship because of the rapid pace of conversation.

But there is also a sense of obligation that gets created, as we face the need to keep in touch with a wider range of people, rather than just ‘catching up’ when we run in to people on a more sporadic basis, and there is the ever present danger of relationships that are more wide than deep.

It is important to move in our world with intentionality and all deliberate haste. Taking a break from E-mail, Facebook, and other social medium allows us to remember what it is like to be without some of our technology, and to practice with purpose our modern lifestyle (says the man writing the blog).

Pay attention, so that you notice who you are and how you change.

I don't quite know what to do with this

So this is mostly off topic, but I wanted to use my small little voice here in the world to communicate a bit of my frustration. A friend recently reminded me that shouting out into the void at least helps us feel better, and sometimes, when enough people shout, something changes.

Recently, documents have been released outlining the United States torture policy at Guantanamo Bay, and it makes me sad to know that our country committed war crimes.

Here is a good summary of what was official US policy:

a key quote:
The documents also lay out, in chilling detail, exactly what should occur in each two-hour waterboarding "session." Interrogators were instructed to start pouring water right after a detainee exhaled, to ensure he inhaled water, not air, in his next breath. They could use their hands to "dam the runoff" and prevent water from spilling out of a detainee's mouth. They were allowed six separate 40-second "applications" of liquid in each two-hour session – and could dump water over a detainee's nose and mouth for a total of 12 minutes a day. Finally, to keep detainees alive even if they inhaled their own vomit during a session – a not-uncommon side effect of waterboarding – the prisoners were kept on a liquid diet. The agency recommended Ensure Plus.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Food and fasting


The traditional fast for Lent has to do with food products. In some traditions, this has meant a fast during daylight hours, others going without meat (except on Sundays) or some other derivation on that theme.

Today's suggested fast is to give up a food product you usually eat-coffee, chocolate, Diet Pepsi, etc.

I think there is something to be said for a fast from a particular food product that is part of the daily routine.  For most of human history, food insecurity was a fact of life. The end of winter was often a time of scarcity, and harvest festivals are a tradition in every culture because a good harvest means survival for another year.  Most people in America do not face the threat of starvation, so it is worth, I think remembering how rare this situation really is from a historical perspective. (There continues to be significant food scarcity, with somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 million people sometimes uncertain about their food source, and 17.5 million going hungry for lack of food at some time during 2008 http://www.frac.org/html/hunger_in_the_us/hunger_index.html) We can get whatever we want, regardless of what time of year it is, just by going to the grocery store in our climate controlled automobiles.  The obesity epidemic in America is a testimony that lack of calories is not our nation's challenge.

So see what it feels like to not have immediate access to everything that we want-pass up dessert, or the morning doughnut, the coffee addiction, or whatever your pleasure happens to be, and remember the patterns of seasons, weather, and scarcity that defined food for most people through history, and billions today.

And maybe remember that our current system may not be sustainable, and what it might mean to face new patterns of life.

International Women's Day

Today, March 8th is International Women's Day, and the Mennonite had an interesting article on the ways in which violence against women remains a reality while we celebrate ways in which the patriarchy has been undermined in the last century. 


Take a moment to celebrate the equality and value of all people today!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Luke 13:1-9

Sorry for the lack of posts last week. I confess I found myself a little uninspired on the topic of journaling.

This week we're talking about fasting, so I think I'll have more to talk about. Its a topic that has always fascinated me.

For example, today's fast prompt is to give up a luxury item-radio in the car, television, I-pod or I-phone apps, etc.

We are surrounded by noise in our lives-from the background hum of the television, NPR as soon as we turn on the car, earbuds walking us through our exercise routine, or just the mental noise made up of the constant information that can stream at us as modern human beings.  I'm not suggesting that things like radios, TVs or Computers are not good things (we can talk, but I think a case can be made for all of them) but they do serve as a distraction from our own minds and thoughts, an excuse not to look closely at our thoughts, our fears, our behaviors in an intentional way, and I think it is worth being intentional about who we are and what we are doing in the world.  There is something to be said for silence, and resting with what is going on in our own heads, and Lent is a time to take the opportunity to claim practices that might be redeeming.

May there be quiet along with the music of our existence.

Finally, here is this week's sermon.