Monday, February 26, 2007

Are There Changes In Your “Lent-Life”?

Or, maybe better phrased, how are you allowing Lent to affect your life?

People of faith often make life adjustments during Lent in observance of the season. The illustration shows Christ with some of his disciples whose lives were certainly changed because of him.

At church yesterday I took note of some of the things we are doing as a Lutheran congregation to acknowledge the season. But first a few thoughts on the significance of Lent.

In my post about Ash Wednesday, the importance of the Lenten season in the Church calendar was noted. The period begins, of course, on Ash Wednesday and ends on Easter Sunday when we celebrate the glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Lutherans, as well as most mainline denominations, observe the Lenten season in a mood of penitence. However, the word “Lent” actually means “springtime” which is a time of preparation, planting and growth.

Our focus during this penitent season, therefore, is on the preparation and growth of our faith and on our complete dependence on God for life itself. It is a time of the year to take our inward reflection seriously, but it is not thought of as a time to wallow in our guilt or sins.

During Lent, the Christian church emphasizes returning to the promise of our baptism. We are encouraged to spend time in prayer, reflection and contemplation of the gifts that God has given us through his Son our Lord Jesus.

Since Lent is a contemplative season, the liturgical churches therefore refrain from using the word “Alleluia” during the period. Then, when Easter dawns, our songs of exclamation ring forth with the blessed tones of, “Alleluia, praise the Lord, he is risen!”.

We have also made several other adjustments in our Sunday worship during Lent. The purposes of altering the liturgy according to the season of the church are that God has an additional means of speaking to us in a fresh way; that we can see our worship with new eyes; and also, that we can emphasize certain aspects of our Christian walk with God at the various times of the year.

So for this season in our worship, we omit the Hymn of Praise, we remove the Alleluia verse, we sing a less melodic Kyrie, and we use a Lenten Hymn in place of the post-communion canticle.

In this way, when Easter arrives, we will again notice a significant change in our liturgy which will serve to remind us in another tangible way, how important God’s saving act in Jesus is for each of us.

For me, this process of learning and practicing the liturgical aspects of our faith has been and continues to be nothing short of exhilarating. Oh yes, am I “giving up” anything for Lent?

Not particularly. But I am trying to follow the suggestion of Pastor Alison in her Ash Wednesday sermon and “not not focus on the discipleship habits” of this Holy Season.

Thanks be to God.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Spiritual Gifts, Talents and Evidences

In a recent adult ed class during the Sunday School hour at church, we had the opportunity to explore what spiritual gifts are and what our own particular one might be. Sounds fairly routine, right? Not necessarily.

First, what are spiritual gifts, and how are they used? Is there a relationship between your natural talents and your spiritual gift(s)? And how are fruits of the spirit evidenced? Are they different yet?

For example, if you have sales abilities, does it mean you have the gift of evangelism? If you have a carpentry skill, does it mean you have the gift of craftsmanship? If you are a good manager, does it mean you have the gift of administration?

Perhaps, but not necessarily.

I don’t purport, in one short blog post, to offer any comprehensive answers here (probably couldn’t even do so in a long post :-). But in our class we came up with some things to contemplate.

Comparing scriptures seems to indicate that every Christian has been given at least one gift of the Spirit for ministry (Eph 4:8). There are more than 20 gifts (literally translated grace-gifts) identified in four primary New Testament references: Romans 12:1-8, I Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4:1-16, and I Peter 4.

Lutheran thinking organizes the gifts into four categories: Gifts for Shepherding (apostle, pastor, prophet, teacher), Gifts for Service (giving, helping, hospitality), Gifts for Strengthening (exhortation or encouragement, healing, mercy), and Gifts for Spiritual Insight (faith, knowledge, prayer, wisdom).

The Holy Spirit himself distributes these gifts “for the common good” of the body of Christ, and their distinction is that they always glorify God, not man. Spiritual gifts are not our choice; they are given according to God’s plan.

Our talents, on the other hand, are things we are good at or do naturally. They are also God-given, but they don’t necessarily express themselves in ministry. As an example, some people are naturally mechanical, or are good cooks or are well organized.

Such gifts CAN be transformed into spiritual gifts as the Holy Spirit directs but are not necessarily so from the beginning. An example of this might be when a good cook uses his or her talent as the gift of hospitality in the church. Or when a school teacher volunteers to lead a Sunday School class.

The distinction is drawn that we are born (physically) with certain talents. At our baptism, or rebirth, the Holy Spirit gives us our spiritual gift(s). We use the former in our daily life and are so recognized. We apply the latter in building up the body of Christ, and God gets all the glory.

Finally, fruits of the spirit are resultant behavioral attributes like “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, etc…” (Galations 5:22,23) that are exhibited when we are properly using our gifts of the spirit for the common good in the body of Christ.

Click here if you’d like to take an online “test” to help determine your own spiritual gift(s). You’ll find it to be very encouraging.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Practice Piety Privately

As I sit here at the computer writing this, my forehead still bears the sign of the cross that was smudged on with ash some three hours ago at our Ash Wednesday service at First Lutheran in Poulsbo.

In my previous Christian venue, I viewed such practices as pretty much superfluous rituals. At the same time I do realize that for many wonderful brothers and sisters in the faith, this practice has lesser importance because their focus is on constancy all the time.

But for me, it was wrong to think the way I did, and I need to acknowledge it. Truth is, the worship I just experienced was perhaps the most moving and meaningful I have ever savored in my entire Christian life.

Lent is considered, by Lutherans at least, to be the most reflective time of the church year, and Ash Wednesday is the most somber day during the period. The day marks the beginning of the Lenten season.

Lent focuses our thinking on faith and life, and we observe it in a mood of penitence. The word “Lent” actually means “springtime”, which is the season of preparation, planting and growth. It has been called the “holy springtime of the soul.”

Ashes are used as a symbol of our frailty. Ashes represent judgment, humility, repentance, mortality, God’s condemnation of sin, and our complete dependence on God for faith and life. The black soot can also represent cleansing and rebirth.

In tonight’s worship bulletin, it was pointed out that ashes are what remain when the old has been burned away and the new life is left to sprout and grow. So, we use ashes as a reminder of our sin and as a hope of the new life we share in Christ Jesus.

Our associate Pastor, the Rev. Alison Shane, indicated in her sermon that Lent is a time for God to speak to us in prayer, in repentance, in worship, in fasting, in service to others and in giving of our time and money. As a church, we’ll focus on these habits of discipleship – also referred to as our piety – all through the Lenten season.

She also pointed out that we should practice our piety in private, and before the Lord, citing Christ’s teaching in Matthew chapter 6: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

She was careful to point out that we should practice piety – but it should be before God and not for recognition in front of people . This Lenten season (as well as the rest of the year, I might add) is a wonderful time for such praxis.

Following Communion we exited the service in silence, pondering the words of the post-Communion prayer: “God of our pilgrimage, in this meal you nourish us with the gifts of faith and hope, accompany our journey through these forty days. Renew us in the gift of baptism, that we may provide for those who are poor, pray for those in need, fast from self-indulgence, and above all, that we may find our treasure in the life of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.”

Amen. Thanks be to God.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Getting Past Stumbling Blocks

I’ve been thinking some more about one of the conclusive observations made by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, The Tipping Point. You can read my initial comments on the book here in a recent post.

The Tipping Point is about group dynamics, uniquely tabbed “the social epidemic” by the author. Contents of the book cover the motivational aspects of how and why we conduct ourselves a certain way as well as how we are affected by others and how others might be affected by our behavior.

What I have been contemplating is his summarization of the actions of the three active participants in the Biblical parable of The Good Samaritan. Here is what he said:

“What this seems to indicate is that the convictions of one’s heart and the actual contents of one’s thoughts are less important, in the end, in guiding our actions than the immediate context of our behavior.”

That is a lot of fodder for thought.

Could this explain why, when we have knowledge of a truth, we act in a most inconsistent manner in relation to our understanding?

Could it be that the reason there is a lack of a planned savings program, for instance, is that we have more “pressing” places to put the funds? (I speak with significant experience here.)

Can this clarify why I didn’t carry through on many things I thought I desired (like being a thriving entrepreneur, getting my private pilot’s license or catching a world-class blue marlin, etc,. etc.)?

One could go off in a number of directions while pondering this idea. But I think Gladwell is really on to something.

Too often we are deterred from doing what we know to be right and good by the circumstances around us that seem to overpower our good intentions. If we want to change the substance of tomorrow we’ve got to somehow get past today’s stumbling blocks.

All I have left is the rest of my life. The past is gone. Only the present remains in which I can act to change my future. And I can think of a legion of things I’d yet like to accomplish.

Now if I can just get through all this stuff I’ve gotta do first…

Friday, February 16, 2007

A Modern Parable About Tax Cuts

A friend emailed me this "modern parable" about tax cuts. It's a bit lengthy but easily understood.

There are various versions on the internet, I discovered, most attributed to a southeastern university economics professor who disavows authorship on his web site. Still worth a read, nonetheless.

Next time you hear Congressional leaders sounding off about who benefits the most or the least from tax cuts, think about this story and see who rings true:

Suppose that every day, ten people go out for dinner and the bill for all ten comes to $100. If they paid their bill the way we pay our taxes, it would go something like this, according to statistical earnings:

The first four (the poorest) would pay nothing.

The fifth would pay $1.

The sixth would pay $3.

The seventh would pay $7.

The eighth would pay $12.

The ninth would pay $18.

The tenth (the richest) would pay $59

So, that's what they decided to do. The ten ate dinner in the restaurant every day and seemed quite happy with the arrangement, until one day, the eatery owner came up with a thought.

"Since you are all such good customers," he said, "I'm going to reduce the cost of your daily meal by $20." Dinner for the ten now cost just $80. The group still wanted to pay their bill the way we pay our taxes, so the first four were unaffected. They would still eat for free. But what about the other six - the paying customers? How could they divide the $20 windfall so that everyone would get his or her "fair share?

"They realized that $20 divided by six is $3.33. But if they subtracted that from everybody's share, then the fifth and the sixth persons would each end up being paid to eat their meal. So, the restaurant owner suggested the following:

The fifth person, like the first four, now paid nothing (100% savings).

The sixth now paid $2 instead of $3 (33% savings).

The seventh now paid $5 instead of $7 (28% savings).

The eighth now paid $9 instead of $12 (25% savings).

The ninth now paid $14 instead of $18 (22% savings).

The tenth now paid $49 instead of $59 (16% savings – the least proportionate savings).

Each of the six paying customers was better off than before. And the first four continued to eat for free.

But once outside the restaurant, the people began to compare their savings: "I only got a dollar out of the $20," declared the sixth. He pointed to the tenth, "but she got $10!" "Yeah, that's right," exclaimed the fifth.

"I only saved a dollar, too. It's unfair that she got ten times more than me!" "That's true!!" shouted the seventh. "Why should she get $10 back when I got only two? The wealthy get all the breaks!"

"Wait a minute," yelled the first four in unison. "We didn't get anything at all. The system exploits the poor!"

As a consequence the first nine surrounded the tenth and made her feel extremely uncomfortable. The next night the tenth didn't show up for dinner, so the nine sat down and ate without her. But when it came time to pay the bill, they discovered something important. They didn't have enough money among all of them for even half of the bill!

That, folks, is how our tax system functions. The people who PAY the highest taxes get the most dollar benefit (also the LEAST proportional benefit) from a tax reduction (without negatively affecting those of lower income, incidentally). Tax people too much, attack them for being wealthy, and they just may not show up anymore. In fact, they might start eating elsewhere, in a friendlier environment.

-Origin Unknown

Thursday, February 15, 2007

“The Good Samaritan” Revisited

Have you ever wondered why, in the parable, the priest and the Levite avoided the injured roadside victim and, in contrast, what it was that might have caused the Good Samaritan to render aid?

I’ll admit I haven’t layed awake nights thinking about it, but a book I’m reading – given to me this past Christmas by my son Gregg and his wife Elaine – has brought the story back to mind.

The volume, by Malcolm Gladwell, is titled The Tipping Point, with the subtitle reading, “How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference”.

It appealed to me right off the bat when I read the following review by the Daily Telegraph on the inside first page: “…a wonderfully offbeat study of that little-understood phenomenon, the social epidemic.”

Ever since Vance Packard’s Hidden Persuaders came out around 1960, I’ve been interested in what motivates people to take certain actions or to behave in a certain way. In advertising, of course, we were always trying to figure out what makes people “tick” so we could hopefully influence their behavior. Sociologists call it group dynamics.

Gladwell calls the phenomenon “the social epidemic.” He’s interested in what the “triggers” are for certain group behaviors and what might even cause a “herd” mentality in some cases.

In other words, is there a common thread to what made Sesame Street, the Pet Rock, Birkenstocks or the iPod so popular? Just one person can cause a flu epidemic, and a media idol can often initiate a fashion trend. You’ll have to read the book to get some answers if you’re enticed.

But back to the Good Samaritan question. In the chapter, “The Power of Context,” Gladwell relates how, at Princeton Theological Seminary, an attempt was made to replicate the parable.

Students were given the assignment of preparing a talk on the aforementioned parable that was to be given at intervals in a certain building. As each seminarian made his or her way to give his or her talk, it was staged so that the person would have to pass a man slumped in an alley with eyes closed and head down, coughing and groaning.

Some of the students had been told to hurry to the lecture hall, while others were told that they could take their time in proceeding.

Of the “hurried” group only 10% stopped to address the victim’s needs. In the “unhurried” group over 60% paused to give assistance.

What this seems to indicate, according to Gladwell, is that the convictions of one’s heart and the actual contents of one’s thoughts are less important, in the end, in guiding our actions than the immediate context of our behavior.

Is he postulating that the priest and the Levite happened to be too much in a hurry and the Samaritan chanced not to be? Likely not.

However, a plausible inference might be that we need to keep the truths of our faith more in the forefront of our consciousness so that our behavior will be less affected by our immediate circumstantial pressures.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Letting the Mind Wander..

The lack of recent posts caused me to write something. Today, when letting my mind wander, I even found myself thinking about winter in Lapland (photo above), but I've never been there, so I don't know much about it. Sure is alluring, though.

While being somewhat busy since returning on Sunday from a week away with our granddaughters, a lot has been churning in the old noggin.

However, “churning” is the operative word. Not many conclusions. Been cogitating on age, life, friendships, ultimate meaning and faith issues. Soon as something congeals for me, it’ll appear here.

Hope to get the computer keys tapping soon.

Saturday, February 10, 2007


My youngest granddaughter, four-and-a-half-year-old Aubrey, in addition to being very attached to her own JR terrier, Jack, has also taken quite a liking to our CKC spaniel, Buddy.

I caught this photo last night when Aubrey was almost asleep on top of Buddy. Not only did he not mind at all, he also murmured his contentment as they reclined together.

Looks like they’re real “buddies”.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Stymied By A Fourth Grade Homework Problem

Last evening my middle granddaughter Hayley asked me for some help with her fourth grade math homework.

Her mom and dad are away for a few days (see previous post) and so Grandma and I were her only help options – and Grandma was busy with the little one.

The question was, “why do you think some (regular) polygons “tile” (fit together like a mosaic) and some don’t?” As an example, triangles, squares and hexagons DO, but pentagons, heptagons and octagons DON’T.

Of course it’s easy to see why when you draw them out and try to fit them together. But what is the mathematical reason?

We thought about it together for quite a while, sketching out different possibilities. Nothing emerged as a ready answer.

Then Hayley pointed out that the questions asks “why do you think” such and such. We decided that the full answer might be a bit complex, and the question simply asked for an opinion. Therefore, she could just give it her best shot.

She did. And her conclusion was quite logical, but we agreed it was probably not the “mathematical” answer desired. However, it was worth putting on paper.

Being who I am, the question bugged me. I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about it. It wasn’t until Hayley had gone to school today that I finally figured it out (I think).

The answer, I believe, has to do with the angle formed by two sides of the polygon and how it relates to 360-degrees. One might also conclude differently.

I can’t wait till Hayley comes home from school today, so I can see if I’m ok in my thinking.

It’s sure not Grandpa’s fourth grade anymore.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Ratcheting Up The Rhythm Rate

You don’t realize how much slower the pace of life is after you retire until you get an opportunity to “kick it up a notch” with grandkids.

We’re enjoying a few wonderful days with our granddaughters while their mom and dad are taking in a pastor’s conference in the sunny and temperate San Diego area. I’m pretty sure they’re having a great time, but we’re immersed in some happy experiences as well.

What becomes apparent when you get to spend around-the-clock time with kids is how much faster their pace of living is. Even our dog Buddy is sleeping more deeply at night, as he’s interrelating with three kids, a cat and a dog that are not normally part of his routine. But his tail wags constantly, and that means he loves every minute of it.

Whenever we’re privileged to do this, memories come rushing back regarding the sometimes hectic, but cherished, schedules we thought we kept when raising our own two sons in the 70’s and 80’s. I think I have to admit, however, that today’s pace is not only faster, but also there seem to be more things on the schedule than when we were parenting.

Of course for us, it means we’ve had to ratchet up the rhythm rate of living for a short time. But we're discovering that there are therapeutic benefits. The effect is like when your endorphins kick in after exercising your body. You just plain feel good.

So far, we’ve learned about the rigors of preparing for a middle school track season; we’ve had to regurgitate how a fourth grader should distinguish the difference between a rhombus and a rhomboid and what’s parallel and what’s not; and we’ve watched “Dragon Tales” on TV and read stories by the dozens to our pre-schooler.

Enjoying family is truly one of the greatest blessings of life that God contemplated when he designed his creation of humankind. And the most incredible aspect of it all is that in later life you almost feel it more deeply. The result is that you truly get back much more than it seems you ever could have put into it.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Cause, Effect, and Time

We’ve all heard the certainty, “for every effect, there is a cause”. You can decide for yourself whether the source of the phrase is scientific or philosophical.

What’s more important is that it’s verifiably accurate.

When you’re young, however, you rarely have to deal with the effects of your “causes”. You can pretty much enjoy anything non-lethal and not have to deal immediately with eventualities.

But for those of us who are older, the Biblical equivalent of this concept, in terms of behavior, becomes more obvious: “whatever you sow, you shall reap”.

To me, this somehow sounds more ominous than the previous phrase. Perhaps the former is more rhetorical and the latter is more assertive.

Whatever the case, as we gradually “mature”, things begin to happen. Muscles start to ache from sudden increases in activity. Every donut we consume seems to go right to the waistline. And we have to learn to handle “abnormal” lab results from the doctor’s office.

There was a time when I thought that these creeping effects were just a normal part of existence, and of course some are. What I think I may have overlooked during those “middle ages” were some of the long term consequences of cause and effect, or, of sowing and reaping.

And it’s those accumulated consequential outcomes that we end up having to contend with when we reach the fabled “senior” status. We now have to think differently and more creatively as to how we can alter the course we’re on.

Often, we’d like for change to occur quicker and faster, but the problem is that we’re older and slower. For seniors, our stage in life is the most significant factor with which we must contend.

Time, the dimension that was our ally for so many years, has now become our enemy.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Freedom From Before

I’ve spent most of my working life in one aspect or another of marketing and/or communications. One of the more interesting challenges in the profession is finding fresh thinking and a different perspective for each new mission.

No matter how we try to separate ourselves from what we’ve experienced before on a given subject or theme, it is seemingly impossible to free ourselves from what’s gone on before. The goal, of course, is to approach a challenge without being encumbered by the past so that creativity and free expression will emerge.

Thinking “outside the rut” is extremely difficult. Right out of college I was of the opinion that creativity was a gift enjoyed by only a few (who usually ended up in advertising). But what I learned from a short, 50-page book I read about 40 years ago, has many times bailed me out at crunch time.

The book was titled A Technique For Producing Ideas, and the author was James Webb Young, one of the premier, if not the greatest, copy writers ever for the famous J. Walter Thompson advertising agency.

If I’m correct in what I remember from back then, his concept was simple. Pour everything you know about the “problem” into your brain for a concentrated period of time. It could be hours or days of focused thinking at the conscious level.

Then totally forget about it for a day or two and let your subconscious “solve” the dilemma. What is absolutely amazing is that when you go back to the “problem” several days later, more often than not, you can come up with a fresh, interesting perspective.

I’ve used the technique time and time again through the years for employers, clients and in my own personal experience. My assumption is that what the conscious mind cannot do (get free from past “ruts”), the subconscious mind is able to accomplish in an unfettered way.

Got a challenge before you? Do the hard work of concentration well, and then let your subliminal circuits lead you toward a possible solution.