Sunday, October 26, 2003

You and Thou

I just finished reading The Unselfishness of God, the interesting and very well written spiritual autobiography of Hannah Whitall Smith. Read it if you can find it, though I think it's out of print. She's the one who wrote The Christian's Secret of a Happy Life.

Pardon me if this seems tangental, but something that has always bugged me is that the English language has no plural for the word "you." "I" has "we," and "you" has ... uh, "you." I've sometimes thought that we should adopt the Southern expression, "you all," or "ya'll."

Interestingly, Smith's book gives some insight into the "you" question.

She grew up as a Quaker (though she modified her views substantially) and the book has a lot of background on Quaker practice.

At one time, she said, Quakers refused to use the word "you," instead favoring "thee" or "thou." The reason, she said, is because when the Quakers began, "thee" and "thou" were the singular and "you" was the plural. But also at that time people were beginning to use "you" as a mark of respect in addressing nobility.

Well, the Quakers believed in equality and weren't about to put up with the inequality implied in the use of "you," so they wouldn't use it. But "you" gradually began to be used for everybody, but the Quakers had gotten into the habit of avoiding it, though the reason for avoiding it had gone away.

A couple of things occur to me from this story. First, I kinda wish the Quakers had won this battle, so we would have the plural I've long wanted. Second, I wonder if there are ways we act or habits we've formed as Christians for which there is no longer a good reason.

Friday, October 24, 2003

The Long Now

The foundation called The Long Now has the goal of building a giant clock that will run for 10,000 years. At first glance that seems a rather pointless - though perhaps fascinating - thing to do, but the foundation's goal is to get people to think long term, and I guess 10,000 years is pretty long term.

In addition to promoting long-term thinking, I think it is an interesting idea for another reason, one that I doubt interests the foundation.

Alexis De Tocqueville, who wrote the best book with the most boring title ever written, Democracy in America, wrote a chapter called, "How, When Conditions are Equal and Skepticism is Rife, it is Important to Direct Human Actions to Distant Objects."

In brief (It is well worth reading the chapter in its entirety), De Tocqueville writes that as people lose their hope for eternal life, they limit their minds to the here and now, and to what they can accomplish in very brief periods of time. This focus on trivia, he argues, makes them unfit for accomplishing great, time-consuming tasks.

Therefore, he suggests that leaders and thinkers try to place the objects of their countrymen's ambitions "far beyond man's immediate range." Then, when people become accustomed to thinking into the distant future, he writes, "they can hardly confine their minds within the precise limits of life," and they will start to wonder what will become of themselves. By these means, he writes, people "would be gradually and unconsciously brought nearer to religious convictions."

If that's true, then blessings on The Long Now.

Saturday, October 18, 2003

Who's the Timekeeper?

I enjoy my prayer group at work a lot, but I've been in other prayer groups that didn't work. I think the problem with the ones that don't work is that nobody is in charge. Here's how things go wrong:

People get together and eventually someone (hopefully) suggests that people share prayer requests, and people do, but they also chat about various other topics, then other people chime in and it becomes a general conversation. Then, about three minutes before the available time ends, somebody says, "Ohh, we're running out of time. John, would you pray for us?" So John prays a brief prayer and that's that. So, the few gregarious people are prayed for, the others miss out entirely, and the prayer time is perfunctory. Even worse, I've frequently seen instances when the time runs out and the group never gets to prayer.

I lead a group at work, and I think the solution is one person committed to watching the time, getting the requests out and making sure there is enough time to pray. I try to keep things on track by summarizing a person's requests. If I sense the conversation beginning to wander too far, I'll say, "So the things we can pray about for you are A, B and C. Are there any other things?" This tends to bring things back on topic. Also, I don't ask who has a request, we just go around the circle. That way even the shy people get a chance to share.

If I were to join a new prayer group, I think my first question would be, "Who's the timekeeper?" And if there wasn't one, I'd request that there be one. And if I couldn't get that, I think I'd decline to participate.

Thursday, October 16, 2003

Theater in Church

Every once in a while, during a sermon at my church, an actor or two will come out and illustrate some sermon point with a little play-let. The actors do a good job and the themes are biblical, so why is it that every time this happens I cringe?

I honestly don't understand my own reaction. I feel embarassed - not for the actors, that they may flub a line or something - but for me. Why should I feel embarassed? I don't know. Nobody's looking at me. I have no theological objection to illustrating sermons with play acting.

When I mentioned this reaction to my wife, she said she feels embarassed too. So you better stay away from me. Whatever it is, it seems to be catching.

Tuesday, October 14, 2003


I was in our church library on Sunday, and it occurred to me how much there is to learn about the Christian faith, and much that most people don't bother to learn. That's fine, I suppose. Not everybody needs to be a theologian, but I do think that everyone should at least have a basic understanding of their faith.

I think these basics used to be taught fairly consistently. I have an old copy of the Heidelberg Catechism I picked up at a used book store in Pennsylvania. It has 52 lessons on basic Christian doctrine, one for each week of the year. When a student finished the lessons, I'd say he or she was fairly well versed in the basics of Christianity.

But I'm not sure nowadays how much emphasis we now put on "catechism" - or whatever we want to call it. My church has a new members class that lasts for a few weeks, but I wonder how many churches even have that, and, if so, how meaty it is. Not getting around to a lot of churches, I couldn't really say, but I can say that I haven't heard much emphasis on such training. If so, I wonder if we aren't leaving people insufficiently grounded in their faith. Maybe we should think again about teaching catechism.

Sunday, October 12, 2003

Neil Postman

I just read today that Neil Postman has died. I'm sorry to hear that.

Postman, if you don't know, wrote a lot of books about society and education. Very smart guy. At one time I worked with Andy, one of his sons, at a children's software company called Knowledge Adventure. One day Neil Postman came by to visit Andy, and after lunch I was surprised to be called into the boss's office.

I found myself in the office with my boss, my boss's brother, and Neil and Andy Postman. It turned out that they had all been out to lunch, and it had come up that I believed the Genesis account of creation (Perhaps because we were working on a program called Dinosaur Adventure), and Neil wanted to talk to me about it.

I look back with some amusement on what ensued; me, a Gentile, being called into the boss's office to defend before four Jews the validity of the Jewish scriptures.

Anyway, it was absolutely the most engaging and intellectually stimulating conversation I had had in ages! Neil Postman was charming, thoughtful, pointed, challenging and respectful, always letting me finish my thoughts without interrupting, like he really wanted to hear what I had to say. And I got the feeling that he enjoyed our conversation, too, which doubled my pleasure.

The Bookmark

I'm not sure many people still have a quiet time to start their day, but it's one of the best parts of my day. Usually I'll read a passage in my Bible, pray, then sing a hymn. It takes about 15 or 20 minutes.

I have a bookmark for my Bible that, obviously, keeps my place in the Bible. But also, on one side of it is a list of topics to pray about, and on the other side is a list of songs. The topics are just to jog my memory. So, the word "Family" reminds me to pray for my family members, and "World" reminds me to pray for missionaries I know and the lands in which they are working. When I'm done praying I flip over the bookmark, pick a song, and go on my way singing.

I've been doing this for a long time, though, and like any form, it can become rote, though I try not to let that happen, and I think maybe I should try some other technique, just for freshness. So anyway, I'm curious about other techniques. Does anybody else have a system that works well for their quiet time? Let me know.

Wednesday, October 08, 2003

In Search of the Un-God

A number of people at work have their computers set to run the SETI@home program. The software, if you're not familiar with it, is hugely popular and quite clever. When the computer is not busy with other tasks, it gets raw data from SETI@home (basically electronic static from space) crunches the data to see if it can find messages from space aliens, then passes the data back to the SETI@Home project. So SETI@home basically gets a supercomputer for free.

But my point is that I wonder if searching for space aliens isn't a secular age's alternative to God. I think people need and desire God, but for secularists, looking for mysterious, super-smart and very nice space aliens comes about as close as they can get to God without having to invoke the supernatural.

Monday, October 06, 2003

Leni Riefenstahl

Leni Riefenstahl died recently, and the news reports repeated that she had made the greatest propaganda film ever, Triumph of the Will. Well, I'd never seen the movie, so I ordered it. It is a documentary of a Nazi Party congress in Nuremburg and it was fairly interesting, though I confess I yawned a few times.

What struck me as I looked at Hitler speaking to all his bright-eyed, bushy tailed followers just dying to do something for their Fuhrer, was that he gave these men a vision. He appealed to an innate desire I believe most people have - to be part of something greater than themselves. In the film the greater thing was "Deutschland," unified and strong. There was a scene in which men from various parts of Germany said something like, "I'm from Erfurt," and another "I'm from Hamburg" and another "I'm from Bingen" (or where ever) but then they all added in unison, "And we're all Germans." Or something like that. My German is rusty.

And I began to feel a bit sorry for those bright-eyed young men, for whether they knew it or not, the greater thing they were being led into was wicked.

What I'm getting at, though, is not that Hitler was evil - I assume you knew that - but that the desire to be part of something bigger than oneself is something people are born with. I think God put it there.

And I wish the church would recognize this. I think many church leaders believe people just want to have love and peace and money and successful marriages and good children and nice jobs and fire insurance for eternity. That's partly true, but I think it misses something critical - that there is a restless desire on the part of many Christians to be part of something big God is doing - even if it is hard. Or, I might even say, especially if it is hard.

Sunday, October 05, 2003


I just got back from a fellowship meeting tonight. We prayed and discussed some little problems at church. The discussion about the problems kind of discouraged me, but then I remembered a passage I'd just read in 3 John.

John writes (9-10): "I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will have nothing to do with us. So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, gossiping maliciously about us. Not satisfied with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church."

Whew! Nobody in my church is trying to put godly people out of the church, yet that happened right back at the start of the church, and with the great Apostle John, no less. And who could not like John?

It really helped me put the trivial problems we were talking about into perspective.

Saturday, October 04, 2003

Trance-Like State

Ever been to a revival meeting? If so, did you walk to it in a trance-like state? No? Well, LA Times columnist Steve Lopez thinks you did. He had this comment today about people going to a Schwarzenegger rally: "[T]he teaming masses streamed by me on foot, marching, marching, marching, trance-like, as if to a revival." It seems to me he could make his political commentary without being gratuitously rude to Christians.

The Next Wave

I'm going to go out on a limb. As I said in an earlier post, I think the church advances in waves and that we in the North American church are currently in a trough.

But what will the next wave be like? I'm going to make a prediction. I think the next revival will retrieve something of the sense of the awesomeness of God. I think a proper sense of awe has generally been lost. We think of God as our pal, not as our King, not as the great Creator above all the heavens, not as the one the very thought of whom should take our breath away.

I hope we don't loose the sense of God being our close friend, but if we can recover the awe, I think we'd be better off.

If I'm right, perhaps church services will be marked with more formality as people act in ways they think are respectful of God. Casual will be out and clerical collars and candles and old hymns and "Sunday clothes" will make a comeback, which is pretty much fine by me... except for ties; I really don't want to wear ties.

Banned in Saudi Arabia

I read in the newspaper this morning that the National Geographic article about Saudi Arabia that I mentioned in an earlier post has been banned in Saudi Arabia. Wow! And I thought it was pretty tame and in some ways perhaps even too positive. I would have thought they'd love it. I guess the Saudi leaders must be feeling extremely insecure these days.

Friday, October 03, 2003

Happy and Grumpy

I got a letter yesterday from an acquaintance in Iraq. He contrasted two Iraqis he had met. One was dirty from working all day, but happy. The other one wasn't doing anything but complaining that the Americans hadn't rebuilt his house.

Perhaps that second attitude tends to develop in a dictatorial society, where you are expected to just turn off your mind and obey, and where everything you get - when you get anything - comes from the government. And now that the government is, for the moment, the Americans, everything should come from them.

I think it will take a while to get over that serf mentality.

Thursday, October 02, 2003

Missing in Action

Near where I live there is an excellent four-year Christian college. There is also a well known seminary, and hundreds of churches, some quite large. Also where I live there is a newspaper with a circulation of probably about 25,000 subscribers. Occasionally on the editorial page debates will erupt about some Christian topic. Letters are published on both sides of the issue for weeks until the editor gets sick of the topic and shuts it off.

All well and good.

But what I don't understand is why I almost never see a letter from a pastor of one of our hundreds of churches, or from an instructor at the Christian college, or from a professor at the seminary. Presumably they know more about Christianity than the average Joe on the street. Yet they remain remarkably silent. Why?

Maybe they do write but don't reveal their qualifications, though it seems odd not to when that could lend such authority to their words. Maybe they don't read newspapers. Maybe they feel it's beneath their dignity to get down in the dirt and wrestle.

Whatever it is, it's disappointing. Isn't Christianity worth defending in the marketplace? These are opportunities to reach 25,000 people with a single letter and they can't be bothered? How many sermons or classroom lectures reach that many people?

Wednesday, October 01, 2003


One comment about my entry, The Stuffed Dog, below, is that it is a bit melodramatic.

I think the word "maudlin" might be a little better, but either way, it reminds me of something I believe Augustine once said, about how people could get all broken up over what happened to characters in a play, but had no concern for the real, live people they met every day.

I hope I'm not quite that bad, though I see the tendency.