Thursday, June 29, 2006

Aha! Light

The pastor’s sermon explained a lot. When he spoke about following God’s leading he said (among other things) that he had not wanted to come to such a small church. That wasn’t the Aha moment—I had to sleep on it—but the lights made it clear.

A big church has multiple pastors on staff, and can hire managers. So do we now. A big church doesn’t need to rely on volunteer advice; it can hire consultants. So do we now. A big church has the big spotlights shining on the pastor. So do we now, and very clunky they look in our small auditorium.

We aren’t a big church, but we’ve got a pile of money and we’re using it to buy big-church accouterments. That’s an expensive way to humor the pastor.

The official reason for the spending is that we are growing, and need to have people in place as we grow. But the lights, intended eventually for the new building, are pretty useless right now.

Of course a few mysteries remain: Why the allergy to AWANAs? Perhaps it was Not Invented Here, or perhaps there were personality conflicts. And the allergy to adult education is also odd. I warned X that relying on small groups meant there was no systematic training, and he said that was something he was working on. This Sunday for the first time they introduced the small group leaders—not as teachers but as pastors! Maybe this is the kickoff for his more organized curriculum. Still, “pastors?”

What to do?

Is this a time for you to be building yourselves paneled houses when my house is in ruins? Haggai

Is this applicable now? Is God’s house in ruins?

I don’t see this applying to the finances of our local church—they have money, and are running through it like drunken sailors.

And yet it does apply to them, and to many other churches as well, where the congregants do not do anything but sit and watch and leave. I overgeneralize: some members of our church are far stronger Christians than I; some do more good works than I (easily arranged, I fear) and have grown in faith and love. But a lot of those are leaving, and the design of the services and activities seems calculated to drive them away.

I hear rumors of the same sorts of problems elsewhere.

What’s the plan? Attract people with sermons addressing felt needs and popular culture, show them the gospel, baptize the persuaded—and then what? Enlist them to recruit more in a holy Ponzi scheme? Hand off all instruction and guidance to small group studies with random study plans and no culture of spiritual disciplines? What’s the point?

And he pitied them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd.

OK, maybe things are happening that I’m not seeing, that make the whole picture better. I doubt it, though. A large fraction of the youth in church youth groups don’t connect with a new church when they go off to college, and some never return to the faith. And when adult Christians, nominally instructed in the faith, can say things like “I have no problem with the idea of Jesus having been married” (yes, real quote; luckily not from our church), something serious is missing.

My own observations suggest that evangelicals often don’t get any systematic introduction to the faith, any systematic explanation of what is expected of them as Christians, and have no training to resist the solipsistic spirit of the age. I can name names of Christians whose only arguments to convince unbelievers are “The Bible says so” and “Darwin was wrong.” It’d be a pretty silly pagan who found that compelling.

I know the school of thought that holds that our true witness is our lives, and there is some truth to that—our lives should be signs and wonders that ratify what we say. But such content-free argument as I described mixes all too easily with the “Its true for you but not for me” attitude that saturates our society. Without clarity converts can and do mix in what they please, worshipping God and other gods—and we have some idea of what He thinks about that.

What we need to do is teach charity, clarity, and purity. Once saved, you are now a member of a new family and you must learn to grow in

  • Charity: love for God, love for your brothers and sisters in Christ, and love for your neighbor; all eventually expressed in actions somehow
  • Clarity: know what it is we believe, and why, and know how this differs from the blandishments of the world; and also to know what we don’t know and what we’re willing to disagree about.
  • Purity: not just a negative—the absence of sin—but the positive changes in mind and spirit coming from a focus on God and His word, on righteousness, prayer, study and meditation, worship together, and more prayer

So what should I do in our local church? Make noise and complain about what’s missing? That’s been done—most of those complaining gave up and left.

Offer to teach it myself? That’s scary. About all I’m good at is the “clarity” part—I don’t have a stellar track record with “charity” and “purity” and I can read the book of James as well as the next guy.

I offered my ideas and service to the elders for the “clarity” part of the instruction we need in the church. Either they’re distracted, don’t like details in the offering, or don’t think it fits in with the grand scheme—the dime has not been gotten off. Maybe they were freaked out by the copyright notice on the book, but if it goes out under my name I want it to be what I said.

What next? Rattle X’s cage again? Ask Y for his take on the material/plans?

Or just do it? Announce that I’m offering this course at my home at such-and-such a time?

Why not?

  • The material isn’t lesson-ready yet: it needs more questions, examples, suggested extra reading, and so on—several weeks at least, and I need some feedback wrt details and plans. I’m not a trained theologian, and there might even be a few mistakes in it.
  • Venue: Parking is a problem around here, and the living room is small.
  • Am I the right teacher for this? Will I be making myself the center? It is very easy for me to consider myself smarter and wiser than the elder board. They make it easy, but it isn’t a good attitude to have. (At least I don’t feel holier…)
  • If the elders disapprove, there’ll be some more explosions, and likely a few more people leaving.
  • Eats more of my time and adds some stress to the family—and with two Aspergers children at home we have an adequate amount of work and stress.

Of course all of these have answers: time, so what if we only have 3 people, somebody’s got to, too bad, and maybe it won’t be so bad.

I’ll keep praying.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Rolling Stone

I gather analysis isn't their strong suit. The sex scandal at Duke story has a few oddities that suggest that the reporter hung around with campus elites. Duke has 6500 undergrads, and they can't all hang out at Shooters. The author hung out with frats and sorors and talked about athletes. It makes for a juicy story, but I'd be more convinced if he'd talked to some chemistry majors too.

And they've an innuendo story about stealing elections . I judge that voting without a paper trail is a recipe for trouble. But I'm afraid that wishful thinking and skewed polls are not useful evidence of wrongdoing.

Both stories use biased sampling to try to reach conclusions (or more accurately, to give impressions and let us reach conclusions). I suppose reporters (not generally the best-educated among us) are never taught anything about statistics, and the editors seem to be no better. And I suppose a magazine devoted to the entertainment world isn't so used to looking past impressions to look at the details: impressions are a lot of what entertainment is about.

Rolling Stone is hardly the only offender (they're just handy). Think about the recent stories about the number of lives hospitals saved with more careful procedures in the last year and a half--and ask how many accidental deaths there were before, and start getting suspicious.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006


Eldest son kept having butterflies (the tabby kind about 3 cm long) land on him and probe for water/ whatever (puddling, I think it is called). He wore a hummingbird-red shirt and had sprayed insect repellant on himself. Do butterflies like Deet?

The wind was strong enough to make my bottle sing its note if I held it just so. After a while youngest son figured out how to make his sing too.

I'd strained my Achilles tendon at the heel, and had an excellent excuse for not climbing bluffs. Unfortunately even the milder walks seem to have had ill effects.

I wonder where the Mound Builders went? There were some substantial migrations when the Iroquois started moving west--I recall reading that the Sioux were originally from the Iowa/Wisconsin neck of the woods.

For that matter, why do the bears and panthers have such round heads? Is that stylization or erosion? I tried to think up reasons for effigy mounds. Everybody thinks "totem," but it could be something like emblem: a memorial built when a leader from the bear clan or porcupine clan or clamshell clan (my idea--you'd get a conical mound that way :-)) was in charge.

It might make an interesting Boy Scout project for them to learn about and try to build their own mound. If it was 20' by 10' by 3' high and rounded, I'd guesstimate 300 cubic feet of dirt. Carrying the dirt isn't that big a deal, especially if you cheat and use inventions like wheelbarrows or the shoulder pole--digging is the hard part. If every boy moved 2 cubic feet of dirt in a day, that'd be 150 boy-days. If several groups got together (I suppose they'd have to, since you'd only build something like this on Scout property), they could build a fairly respectable mound in a couple of days without too many blisters.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Super Absorbant

The "superabsorbant" waffle-weave towels are supposed to be more absorbant and more durable than the usual tufted fabric ones. (They're also more expensive.) Well, a 18 inch by 36 inch one isn't enough to completely dry off a 6 foot tall man who is sopping wet. Your mileage may vary.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Monrovia Mon Amour

A visit to Liberia by Anthony Daniels

Anthony Daniels may be better known by his pseudonym Theodore Dalyrymple. He is a doctor and psychiatrist and a fine writer.

This book dates from 1992 and describes his observations from what must have been a couple of weeks visit to Monrovia during a time when the Interim Government of National Unity ran Monrovia (with the help of Ecomog aka Every Car Or Moveable Object Gone) and negotiations were in progress. Doe’s men still held the Executive Mansion and the military camp.

On the morning of my arrival in the Ivory Coast I learned that the Steel Trader was due to sail from Abidjan for Monrovia and I went straight down to the ‘Port Autonome.’ A man in khaki uniform, reclining on a bench like Madame Recamier, barred my way. I was not allowed to enter the port.

’Where are you going?’ he asked.

’The Steel Trader,’ I replied.


’I am a doctor,’ I said, leaving open the possibility that a terrible epidemic had broken out on board.

’Do you have medicine with you?’ asked the official.

’Of course,’ I said.

’I am always tired, doctor,’ said the guardian of port security.

’Why?’ I asked.

Laboriously, he levered himself up on to his elbow.

’Too much work,’ he said.

I searched in my box of time-expired medicaments for something suitable, and alighted on erythromycin, vivid pink antibiotic pills that looked as though they would glow in the dark.

’These,’ I said, ‘are very good for tiredness.’

’How many do I take?’ he asked.

’One a day, until you are no longer tired.’

’Merci. Bon voyage, docteur,’ said the official, collapsing back on to his bench.

That was the end of immigration and customs formalities in Abidjan.

The above is the first page of the book, and gives you a flavor of both the man and what he finds. (I’m violently allergic to erythromycin myself, and find his choice of medicines startling.) He toured the Masonic building, the University, the Maternity Hospital, and tried to invoke a feeling for the often banal existence before the violence, and from there arrive at an understanding of the destructiveness of that violence. For example, the Maternity Hospital was thoroughly looted and wrecked; the papers from it used apparently as toilet paper. Apparently only the medical records were so used, and not the more mundane correspondence, and from this he mused about the way the white man’s medicine must have evoked resentment from those whose world-view it was overthrowing. Maybe it did cause resentment, but he forgot that the looters were mostly illiterate; and a more mundane explanation might be that the medical records, on sturdier stock than typing paper, were a more useful substitute for the traditional toilet of large leaves.

He attended the All-Liberia Conference, discovering later that “the middle of the day was a good time to travel if you wanted to avoid road-blocks, because it was then too hot for security, and the soldiers would languidly wave you through from under the shade of a tree.” Of course the “history-making” conference made no history or breakthroughs. “The delegates sat around the tables, deep in political discussion. Lunch was delayed by an hour and a half. When finally the food arrived, there was a scramble for it as desperate as the scramble in which I had participated at Lagos airport one the boarding of the aircraft was announced (The Togolese market women had brushed me contemptuously aside with their baskets, seemingly laden with lead ingots). The leaders of the nation were terrified that there would not be enough lunch for them.” There he also met Tipetoh (leader of MOJA; Movement for Justice in Africa), whom he shreds (“He kindly gave me the Preface, a single sheet of paper, and also a large photograph of himself: in my experience, the few people who genuinely believe in the equality of man do not carry photographs of themselves in their attaché cases for distribution to as many people as possible”)

He later arranged to meet Prince Johnson, and was even more horrified by his vice-Marshall Varney than he is by Johnson. Still later he arranged to see the infamous movie of Doe’s murder by Johnson, and was startled at the glee his hosts display re-watching it.

Along the way he met and was suitably perturbed by various people with ill-concealed pasts—people who had active roles in the massacres on one side or another.

Memory can be a fuzzy thing sometimes, and many of the places he described are either places I didn’t visit more than once, or were built after my time. Providence Baptist Church—he slipped out of the service at the new building, which was still under construction when I left. Some of the ruins are of places not yet built 30 years ago, which makes his references hard to follow.

He toured JFK hospital, and the massacre site of St. Peters, and found some of Doe’s family still living in Doe’s house. He even got permission to tour the Barclay Training Center where Doe’s army remnant still camped, and eventually even the Executive Mansion. Along the way he met still more villains, but I have the feeling that a lot of his reaction was read into the men from what he knew of them; a reaction to his knowledge rather than to them personally. But he is honest with himself here. He attended an interview of General Brown by a Swedish TV team (and FWIW he found them an exception to the usual Swedes in Africa whom he describes, “I feared the compassion of the Scandinavians as I feared the cruelty of other peoples, for their compassion was simultaneously neurotic and abstract, sentimental and ruthless.” Yes, he justifies this with examples.). This Swedish team is interested in digging out stories, and grills the General, who says at the end of the interview “’You have asked a lot of questions,’ he said. ‘Now it is only fair that you should answer ours.’”

There were several questions I could think of which might have caused us some embarrassment: had we come to Liberia to further our own careers, did the destruction we found there confirm us in our feelings of cultural superiority, were we enjoying ourselves amidst the ruins, did the level of suffering in Monrovia match up to what we had expected and hoped for, or were we disappointed in it?

Dr Daniels doesn’t say as much outright, but the answers would probably have been “Yes,” or something closely kin to it. He is very sensitive to matters of architecture and culture, and sees meaning in things (such as the carefully sawn-off legs of the only Steinway piano in Liberia) that don’t always resonate with other people. His insights misfire sometimes, but he hits the nail on the head at others. The fall of every sparrow is attributed to some CIA conspiracy, because people want meaning in their lives and the notion that America just doesn’t care about Liberia is intolerable to them.

The situation in Liberia is now very different, of course. The corruption is still there, but for now there’s no war or threat of war. This dates the book slightly. Someone who had spent years there would no doubt have written a more accurate book. But the glimpses of what life is like with decommissioned murderers in the neighborhood are still useful. This book is good despite its flaws, and I recommend it.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

20 months old

Neighbor Toby is twenty months old. He is cheerful and adventurous, and he speaks entirely in consonants, like the groundhog child Grundoon from the old Pogo comic strip. Yesterday he and his mom and brother were here because I had a new washer delivered, and every little boy loves to watch a big truck. Toby and brother Sammy, age 5, love exploring somebody else's house, and were thrilled to pet and play with our rabbits.

Toby's mom showed him our irises, which are huge and purple. The irises stood taller than Toby. We grownups forget what the world looks like from that level. I watched Toby reach up for a blossom, with the leaves framing his face. I remembered other adventures with our own kids, when their angle of view revealed delights I missed: the bumblebees hiding under a goldenrod during a shower; clams in the weeds under the "belly boards" along the marsh boardwalk, and the plain joy of counting frog noses in the pond.

Mrs james