Month: July 2015

Exit 65. God certainly works in mysterious ways.

I had lunch with an awesome human being earlier this week.  Let’s call her “Alpha Lyncis.”  I actually saw her twice this week, after not having seen her at all for several months, but that’s not part of the story.  Anyway, I’ve known Alpha Lyncis since she was 14, and a student in my Algebra I class.  She is now 22; she just graduated from college, and she will be spending the next year interning with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.  InterVarsity is a Christian para-church organization, not affiliated with any specific church or denomination, that ministers to college students, with chapters on hundreds of campuses nationwide.  Chapters typically will organize weekly fellowship meetings where students sing worship songs, pray, and hear a talk; the chapters also lead small group Bible studies as well as service projects and mission trips during school breaks.  At least that’s what the chapter at UC Davis was like back when I was there.  I was involved with the UC Davis chapter of InterVarsity for most of the time I was a student there, and it was through people I met there that I first came to understand what it meant to know Jesus and to decide that for myself.

Anyway, back to Alpha Lyncis.  InterVarsity staff are supported through charitable contributions.  Alpha Lyncis is back in Sacramento for a while, meeting with people who might be interested in being part of her support team, so we were meeting to talk about that, as well as just to catch up.  At one point, she told a story about when she and her college friends went out to eat at 1am, and I said that some of my silliest stories have come from times when my friends and I were out eating late at night.  I told her about how, for several years, we had a tradition of going to one specific restaurant, that is open 24 hours and in a neighborhood not far from a lot of trendy bars, and playing the game Contact.  Contact is a word-guessing game, but with me and my friends, the game quickly degenerates into inside jokes, creative nerdy made-up words, and many of the dirtiest and most inappropriate things I’ve ever seen.

When I mentioned Contact, Alpha Lyncis said that was a fun game.  Then, suddenly, she got this look of recognition on her face and said, “It was you!”  I looked confused.  What was me?  “You taught me that game!” she continued.  Now it was my turn to have the look of recognition come over my face; I had completely forgotten when I started telling that story that, several years earlier, when Alpha Lyncis was a student at my school, I had in fact taught Contact to her and a few other students.  We were on a school-sponsored community service project, shoveling mulch at a park all day; I had been playing Contact with friends a lot, and we were standing out there doing manual labor, and it seemed like a good time to play Contact.  I, of course, left out all the dirty jokes, since I was playing with students.

Alpha Lyncis went on to explain that, for years, she had been playing Contact with students in the Bible studies that she led in college, and she could never remember where she learned the game until I just now mentioned it.  “You have a legacy at my college, Mr. [my last name],” she said.  I was excited.  I never would have expected that something that started with being silly with a bunch of my friends one night many years ago would eventually help a bunch of college students hundreds of miles away learn about Jesus and the Bible.

God certainly works in mysterious ways.

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Exit 64. Seven days.

I have a bad habit of going to used bookstores, used music and movie stores, or just walking past garage sales, then buying a few books or movies really cheap, and letting them sit on my shelf for months or years before I finally make time to read or watch them.  As I write this, I am currently watching the movie The Ring, which I acquired from a neighbor’s garage sale about a year ago and never watched.  I’ve seen it once before, but not in a very long time.  I watched it in a theater when it was new, which would have around 2003ish, I’m guessing, because I remember who I saw it with.  This is a horror movie about a haunted videotape that, if you watch it, you will die in seven days.  (Kids, a videotape is what people used to watch movies in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s.  It was kind of like a big rectangular DVD or Blu-ray disc.  And DVDs and Blu-rays are what people used to watch movies before everyone had streaming on-demand video.)

Although I don’t remember much detail about this movie, I remember liking it.  I also remember my friend that I was with jumping and grabbing on to my arm a few times, and I remember thinking years later that she probably liked me, and I should have made a move or something, but I was too blind and confused to see it then, and now she’s married, and it’s probably awkward to put this here in case she reads it, she’s on my Facebook but she never uses Facebook… but I digress.

I remember something else that happened in that theater all those years ago: I realized that I really haven’t seen a lot of horror movies.  It isn’t that I don’t like horror movies; in fact, I have enjoyed the few that I’ve seen.  I just haven’t watched very many.  It was never part of my experience growing up, probably because my mother doesn’t like horror movies.  But there’s no reason I can’t watch horror movies now.  It’s a lot like how I discovered in my teens that I liked roller coasters, after hearing years of Mom telling me that roller coasters were scary.

Sometimes, doing things the way they’ve always been done can block forward progress and growth.  Sometimes, doing things the way they’ve always been done has nothing to do with the best, wisest, or most efficient way to do something.  Sometimes, the way one person has always done something may be different from someone else’s way of doing it, which potentially could lead to a disastrous miscommunication.  I don’t want to be afraid to try new things.  Life changes quickly, and sometimes I need to change the way I do things in order to deal with a new reality.

Exit 63. God cares much more about the condition of your heart than the position of your arms and legs.

Last week, my church hosted a major week-long event for children. On Sunday morning, the usual worship team was joined by a group of children and preteens leading the congregation in two of the songs that they sang during last week’s children’s camps, with the young people leading the hand motions. That got me thinking about something. I spent four years (1997-2001) volunteering with the junior high youth group at the church I went to at that time. It was a lot of fun. It was good to relate important spiritual lessons to the world of young people, and to see them react to it and make positive changes in their lives. I enjoyed the games and activities we’d do with them, and I’ve stayed friends with a few of those kids, now in their late 20s and early 30s, over the years. But there is one thing I never particularly cared for when it came to youth ministry.

I hate doing hand motions to songs.

I don’t know why, but I have a theory. Hand motions are usually associated with music for children. Younger children like the hand motions because it gets them involved with the music. It’s fun to them, and it engages them in a way that the sound and lyrics alone may not. Older children like the hand motions because it reminds them of their childhood. It’s something fun they did as kids that they don’t do as often anymore by the time they start to hit puberty. But I was never involved in a church group as a kid, so I didn’t have that nostalgia for the hand motions of my childhood Sunday school class because there was no such class in my past. As an adult, I prefer to reflect quietly on the lyrics.

Different styles of worship can be a major point of contention between different churches and denominations. There are some whose worship imitates pop and rock music, there are others who sing everything a cappella because they believe that drums and guitars are from Satan. I’ve seen it sometimes up close, too. For example, I remember at Church I With The Problems hearing a talk about being obedient to God in worship. The (pastor, or worship leader, or whoever it was giving the talk, I forget) specifically mentioned a song that includes a line about “standing on holy ground,” and he said something to the effect that if you are not physically standing when you sing that line, then you are being disrespectful to God. The same goes for another song with the line “we lift our hands”; if you are not actually lifting your hands at that point, you’re not worshiping right. I’m sorry, but I don’t agree with that. Come on, people… It’s just a line from a song. I believe that God cares much more about the condition of your heart than the position of your arms and legs. Don’t get me wrong. If you want to mimic any physical movement described in the lyrics, if that helps you feel closer to God, then by all means, do it. There’s nothing wrong with it. But don’t assume that I don’t love God because I don’t. Sometimes I sit in quiet reverence because I’m tired, and my feet hurt, and standing would be less physically comfortable, which would distract me from the lyrics and keep me from feeling the presence of God.

Let’s think about this, folks… getting on my case for not standing or not doing the hand motions… where else have we heard about people who got worked up over someone not following their religion’s minor rules, while completely ignoring the condition of their hearts? Maybe the Pharisees of Jesus’ day? (See, for example, John 9) And didn’t Jesus reserve some of his harshest words for people like this? Fortunately, I haven’t had any incidents at my current church regarding me not standing when most others are, or not doing the hand motions with the children. Hopefully it’ll stay that way. So go ahead, encourage your children to do the hand motions, but don’t make a big deal of it if they don’t.

(By the way, to the worship pastor who said yesterday that all the cool people are doing the hand motions: If you’re reading this, I know you didn’t mean that seriously, and I wasn’t offended at all by it, and your daughters did a great job with the hand motions. Like I said, I haven’t had anyone give me a hard time at our church for this reason, and the things that I heard at Church I With The Problems weren’t directed at anyone personally either. I just wrote about this because it got me thinking yesterday.)

Exit 62. Happy 239th birthday, United States of America.

Yesterday, July 4, was Independence Day here in the United States of America.  The British began settling the Atlantic coast of what is now the USA in the 1600s and 1700s.  By the 1760s and 1770s, the relationship between the Crown and the colonies had deteriorated as the government raised taxes and exerted greater control in the colonies.  After full-blown war broke out, a group of representatives met in Philadelphia and signed the Declaration of Independence (full text).  The Declaration, dated July 4, 1776 and primarily written by Thomas Jefferson, began by asserting that all are created equally with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that government is derived by the consent of the governed; and that when a government becomes abusive, the people have the right to abolish it and replace it with another government.  The Declaration then continues with a list of reasons that the British government under King George III had abused its power in the American colonies.  Fighting between the colonists and the British would continue for several years, and in 1783, after the British had suffered a number of defeats, they formally ended fighting and recognized the new nation.  Thomas Jefferson would later become the third President of the new United States of America, serving from 1801 to 1809, and as one of the nation’s Founding Fathers, his image can be seen on both the five-cent coin and the two-dollar bill.

I have friends in other countries now, and I occasionally get views on this blog from outside the USA, so one reason I included this brief history lesson is because I don’t know how much of this is taught in other countries.  The sad thing, however, is that many people right here in this country don’t seem to know what we are celebrating on July 4.  All of this is still taught in schools, but so many these days have the attitude that what they learn in school is not worth remembering once they have taken a test on it.

This is certainly not the only reason for our changing sense of national identity, of course.  I grew up in the context of the waning years of the Cold War and the brash consumerism of the 1980s, with a clear sense that we were the “good guys” and the Russians were the “bad guys” long before I understood the causes of the Cold War or the political and economic differences between the two nations.  Today’s youth spent their childhoods in the era of the United States being the world’s only superpower, and being widely criticized for that role  They live in the era of increasing globalization and exposure to other cultures, and the era of increased public concern over environmental destruction and its consequences.  This is just my opinion and observation, not intended to be a scientifically drawn conclusion, but it seems like this has created a generation that does not value representative government or free market economics as much as previous generations.  An increasing segment of the population associates representative government with injustice and free market economics with the destruction of the environment, and their views are entirely justifiable in light of recent history.

To me, this context can make the celebration of independence a little awkward.  Does this country still stand for the ideals embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution?  There is no doubt that the world has changed a great deal since Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues wrote the Declaration 239 years ago, and that our nation and the world are facing a very uncertain and potentially unsettling future.

I want to have hope and optimism that our nation will survive.  Those who wrote the Constitution knew that the world would change in ways that they could not foresee, so they included a provision by which the Constitution could be amended.  It is difficult to amend the Constitution; an amendment must be proposed by a 2/3 vote of Congress, and then the state governments of 3/4 of the states must pass a bill in favor of the amendment.*  But it is important that Constitutional amendments be difficult to pass, so that the foundations of our national government do not change based on whims and fads, and this is why only twenty-seven Constitutional amendments have been approved.  (*Yes, I know there are a few other options involved, but I’m trying to keep it simple.)

One key phrase from the Declaration of Independence that tends to get forgotten these days is “consent of the governed.”  Government exists because the people allow it to exist, and in a representative government like ours, the government only has power because the people allow it to.  Some complain, justifiably, that our government is under the control of big money and big corporations, but the only reason for this is that enough voters have become complacent and cynical enough to continue voting for people who are beholden to big money and big corporations.  This could easily change if enough voters could agree on something better.  Also–and I know that this next part is not true of all countries–the United States federal government exists because the states allow it to exist.  The United States is not one country that was formed first and then divided into states; it is a group of states that created a centralized authority to strengthen their union.  We tend to forget that each state has its own culture and its own way of life, and that, for the most part, the states should not all be the same in the first place.

So, Americans, learn about the issues facing your community, your state, and the nation.  After learning about the issues, vote in the next election.  Remember, you will probably have to make some compromise votes, because no one’s views will follow yours exactly, but some candidates are definitely better equipped to be leaders than others.  I hope we as a nation can continue to do the best we can, and that we will find a solution to the divisiveness and ignorance that seem to have dominated recent elections, on both sides.  Happy 239th birthday, United States of America.