Friday, November 30, 2012

Koinonia: Yearned for; and Feared!

In Acts 2:42 we find that the earliest church was devoted to four things: the Apostle's teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and to prayer.  The second of these, fellowship, is the Greek word koinonia; a word that means 'communion by intimate participation.'

The first time I remember hearing this word was at the place and time when I came to know Christ as my Lord.  That was over 40 years ago, but the discussion left quite an impression on me.  Koinonia was described as being much more than just friendship, hanging out together, or a potluck.  Rather it described an intimate sharing of lives under the headship of Christ.  Just like the parts of my body are pretty tightly integrated together, so, as members of the body of Christ, we should be tightly bound together with one heart, mind and spirit.
20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. - John 17:20-23 NIV
While the word koinonia is not in this passage, the idea of participating together in an intimate communion is. Jesus prayer here is as much for me and other believers of today as for believers of any age.  Jesus prays that we would be one.  And more specifically, that we would be one like he and the Father are one.

Over the past 40 years I find myself drawn to this passage frequently.  I can't help but believe that I am missing something in my experience as a believer.  Jesus explicit desire for me is that I experience an intimacy with other believers that is, at least in some ways, similar to the intimacy he experiences with the Father.  I must confess that I do not understand just all that entails, or how to achieve it.  But I am convinced that I have failed to reach that oneness with other believers; although some times it seems like it is closer than at other times.  And I must confess that the fault is largely mine: it scares me.  But at the same time, it is something that I yearn for.

Humans are generally social creatures, although some are more or less social than others.  And I tend to land on the side of being less social.  I am quite comfortable with being alone; and even need a certain amount of alone time to be emotionally healthy.  But at the same time I long to have closer relationships with others, to be a part of something bigger than myself.  Marriage helps in this regard, but I still feel the need for more.

But how do I get there?  How does a nearly 60 year old introvert break out of his shell, convince others around him to do likewise, and begin to experience koinonia?  I have waited a long time for someone to come along with a big enough rock to break my shell from the outside; and it has yet to happen, apart, of course, from my wife.  I guess I am going to have to start pecking away at the shell from the inside, trusting God to help me break free.

But I am afraid to.  What happens when the people I hang out with discover who I really am?  Will they laugh?  Will they be shocked?  Will I end up even more isolated? All of those are certainly possibilities.  And that uncertainty acts like extra strength mortar, holding together the bricks of my security wall.  As much as I hate to admit it, rejection is hard.

But maybe, if I take the first step, with a few trusted friends, then just maybe I might find that the risks that I fear are just overblown, and they in turn might be willing to let down their barriers a bit, and we might discover that it is good.  And who knows; maybe, just maybe, we might be encouraged to continue to tear down the walls, brick by brick, until we experience koinonia.  Yes, it is a risk.  But how much greater is the potential reward.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Seattle Marathon 2012

Yesterday was my 5th running of the Seattle Half-Marathon, along with a single full marathon.  I had originally planned to run this as a full marathon, but injuries kept me from being able to run for nearly 5 months and put any thought of a 26 mile run out of the question.  And even a 13 mile run seemed questionable as little as 3 weeks ago.  But the recent calf problems seemed to have been resolved by going back to regular running shoes, and the back was rested and protected with a brace.  I had managed an 11 mile run the previous weekend so felt like upping that total by a couple of miles should be doable.

Race day dawned (kind of), cool, overcast and dry: very good running weather.  I joined the mob at the start line; probably about 8,000 other half marathon runners, found my pacer, got the iPod plugged in and watch ready, and then waited for the start.

Mass starts, like the Seattle Marathon uses, are interesting.  I started probably 100 yards from the actual start line, and it took about 2.5 minutes before I actually crossed the line and officially started the race.  It was a bit strange to hear 'GO' and have everyone around you still just standing around for awhile before beginning a casual stroll to the line.  And even after crossing the line the pace is very slow for the first few hundred yards until the herd gets up to speed; and then erratic for a mile or so as we get ourselves sorted out and spaced out a bit.

The Seattle Half-Marathon course starts by the Space Needle, runs south along 5th Ave, then heads east on I90 to Lake Washington, turning and running north along the lake before cutting back west, through Interlaken Park, south along I5 and then back through town to the Seattle Center.  The course is moderately hilly although there is only a single hill that is much of a challenge.  Running along I90 is like running along a freeway, not overly scenic, but most of the rest of the course is through shopping, residential areas or parks. The scenery is varied and the aide stations are plentiful. I enjoy the course very much.

Because of my lack of training, I knew there was no chance of getting a good time in this race, and was running mostly because I had already paid for the event.  So I figured that I would just take the race nice and easy and focus on finishing rather than pushing hard.  Based on the previous weekends run, I thought I should be able to easily run a 2:30 race, with 2:20 a possibility.

The first half of the race went according to plan, nice and easy, conserving my strength so it would last through the race.  But once I got to the top of the big hill at about mile 8, I still felt good and so started to speed up a bit.  And with about 3 miles to go I opened up a bit more.  I was really surprised with the amount of energy I still had at that point; nothing was hurting and no red warning lights were going off.  I actually managed to finish in 2:14; way better than I had any reason to expect.  At the end my legs were pretty much gone, but I felt good.

I don't really like crowds, and generally run alone.  As a result, running in conditions that would make a sardine claustrophobic are a bit challenging.  But it does have a positive side as well.  I enjoy the people watching during the race, although I seldom see much more than their back side as one or the other of us passing the other.  

I am a fairly drab runner, although I do wear a lot of yellow for visibility.  And I stay generally bundled up when it is cold, with the only exposed skin being from my neck up.  But that is not true of everyone.  Some folks were dressed for running in the tropics.  And some were extremely colorful.  There were some folks who stood out enough to be able to recognize them later on in the race as we would past a second (or third or fourth) time.  Running in a marathon is really a cool time for people watching.

I think, all in all, that this was probably my favorite time for this event.  It helped greatly that I was not pushing for a PR, but rather just cruising slowly along and enjoying the day and the crowd around me.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving 2012

As Thanksgiving rolls around again I find it appropriate to take the time to remember what I have to be thankful for.  Included in this updated list from last year is (are) ...
  • a God who created this universe and who has given me an opportunity to be a part of his kingdom, both now and through eternity.  I am thankful to God that I can know him in a personal way.  And I am thankful that he has a purpose even for one as insignificant as I.
  • the opportunity to serve God both within a local church and the Olympic Baptist Association.  Being able to be more actively involved in the OBA has been a joy to me over the past 4+ years and I look forward to what lies ahead.
  • a wife that loves me far more than I deserve.  She is a jewel beyond price and makes my life so much better than it would ever be without her.  Everything she touches is better for her having been there.
  • a son and daughter that have turned out 'not half bad'.  I am thankful for who they are and what they have taught me about love and responsibility.  I am thankful for their willingness to serve their country in the military, even if it was the Army and Air Force rather than the Navy.
  • my parents who, although long gone, still remain a shining beacon and model for me to follow.  My dad could seemingly do anything and was a leader of men.  And my mom loved us all passionately and would give all for her family.  I have learned much from their life and from their death.
  • friends that I can share my life with.  I am not a particularly social creature, and enjoy spending time alone.  But it is also good to have friends to share with; especially a few close ones that I can share my heart with.
  • for the small group from my church that I am a part of.  The opportunity to develop relationships beyond what I normally am capable of has been special.
  • a job that pays well, takes little time, and can be done in my pajamas.  Being downsized from my previous job has really worked out well for me.  I am comfortably retired, so the extra I make on the job now provides for extras and for ministry opportunities.
  • a home that is comfortable, paid for and is in fairly good condition.  I really like my home.  It's nothing fancy but it is a place I enjoy spending time.  I enjoy puttering around the house and the big yard.  And it hold lots of memories, 25 years worth.
  • a country that, in spite of many problems, remains a land of opportunity and freedom.  There are few places in the world I would rather live that in my corner of the US.  The recent elections were long and acrimonious, and not always to my liking; but it is great that we have the opportunity to pick our leaders and see a peaceful transition in government. 
  • the opportunity and health to be able to run marathons and go on long hikes.  I enjoy the chance to be out and enjoy the creation:  spending a month on the trail this year was special.  And who would have ever guessed that a desk jockey like myself would be able to start running in his mid 50's and end up running marathons.
  • a successful encounter with Prostate Cancer.  I learned a lot about myself during this experience; having never before had any real health issues.  And I am thankful that the cancer is gone.  I am also thankful for the people who participated in its removal and my recovery.
  • the opportunity to share my thoughts and opinions with the handful of people who read my blog.  I have enjoyed putting thoughts into words and posting them for all the world to read, even if most of the world in not interested.
  • and I am just thankful.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Small Beginnings

Instant gratification!  That seems to be the theme anymore; at least for folks in the US.  If we don't see results pretty quickly, and preferably pretty dramatic results, we lose patience and call for a change.  And it seems not to matter if the target is a president, a football team, or a weight loss program.  I want what I want, and I want it now.

But Jesus gives us a couple of tiny little parables that seem pretty counter to that mindset; at least concerning the kingdom of heaven.

The Mustard Seed

31 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” - Matthew 13:31-32 NIV
Some people like to quibble about the parable of the mustard seed, claiming that Jesus' size claims are inaccurate.  But I think that is really more an attempt to find fault rather than listen to what he is trying to teach us.  Mustard seeds are pretty tiny, and while not actually the smallest seed of all, are likely about the smallest you would ever plant.  And while there are a large variety of plant sizes for mustard, one of the species common to the Mediterranean does get to get quite a large bush.  To those that Jesus relates this parable to, it is probable that this was the smallest seed known to them and that it produced the largest garden plant they were familiar with.

But, given that, what is Jesus trying to say with this parable?  It might seem like a simple botany lesson, if it was not for the comparison he draws to relate it to the kingdom of heaven.  I believe that there are two equally valid ways of understanding this parable; one related to the individual, and the other to the church at large.  And both of them start small and develop into something much larger.

What happened in my own life when the word of God was planted?  To most of the world, who have not experienced it, it seems rather insignificant and of little value.  But that seed, once planted, sprouted, and began to grow within me, and continues to do so up to this day.  And far from being an insignificant and valueless myth, it has worked powerfully within to create something entirely new; a son of God.  I believe it is fair to say that the word of God has had more impact on my life than anything else I have ever encountered.

And this is true on a larger scale as well.  Christianity took birth in a backward Roman province, among a mostly poorly educated working class, proclaiming a strange and offensive message of a crucified savior.  But what has that mustard seed grown into today?  I don't personally believe that most of the people who check off 'Christian' on the survey form actually have a personal relationship with that crucified, and risen, savior.  But I believe it is hard to underestimate the impact that the teachings of Christ have had on the world in the past 2000 years.  And the kingdom of heaven has continued to grow over the past 2000 years in the lives of believers, becoming a tree that offers shelter to all who come seeking.

By my count there are about 21 parables of Jesus recorded in the synoptic gospels; John has none.  And of those, only three are recorded in each of Matthew, Mark and Luke.  Do you think maybe the authors of these gospels felt like this was a particularly significant parable?  Maybe we should not get discouraged when the kingdom of heaven is not advancing as fast as we would like it to.  Maybe, instead, we should quit complaining about those who we think are slacking off, get busy, do our part, and trust God to accomplish his purpose.

Yeast

33 He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.” - Matthew 13:33 NIV
The second parable in this set is even shorter than the first; but has a similar message to the mustard seed parable: don't overlook what appears small and insignificant.  In this case, the kingdom is like yeast rather than a mustard seed.  The difference is that with the mustard seed we are seeing the growth of the kingdom of heaven while with the yeast we are seeing its influence.

I have, at certain times in my life, done some baking.  And one of the ingredients used in making bread was yeast.  If you didn't know better, it would seem like yeast was a relatively insignificant ingredient with only a tablespoon or so of yeast to go with 9 cups of flour, and various other ingredients.  But you would be in for a big surprise if you left it out.  With the yeast, you get nice fluffy loaves of bread.  Without the yeast you get small hard bricks that you really need to soak before attempting to eat.

The influence of the kingdom of heaven on the world is immeasurable.  And it seems to work best behind the scenes, changing the hearts of people, and through that, making an impact in the world.  Yet too often we want to directly change our culture, forcing others to live in a certain way, with little attempt to change them internally.  The parable of the yeast challenges me to work to change individual lives, bringing them into the kingdom, and in so doing, change the culture, rather than the other way around.

Friday, November 16, 2012

An Anchor in the Midst of Change

Change is oftentimes hard.  But it is also necessary.  Without change we would not have life.  Sometimes we embrace change.  Other times we resist it.  Sometimes change is good.  And sometimes change is less than good.  But no one can escape it.

We encounter change in many different ways.  My body changes food into energy.  My body goes through almost continual change from conception through decomposition.  My relationships with parents, spouse, children, friends, co-workers, and neighbors are seldom static.  My job changes over time, as does my home, and the wilderness that I enjoy.  My understanding of the world around me changes over time and with additional knowledge.  My country changes due to elections, demographics, an increasing reliance on government, pressure from the world without.  Change is all around us.  It is hard to look at something, apart from God, that is unchangeable.  So why do so many resist it?

Now I am not a psychiatrist, nor do I have any training in the field; but that does not mean I have no opinion.  So here's my two cents worth; hopefully it will be worth at least that.

It is probably incorrect to say that any healthy person is resistant to all change; and probably enjoy change in some areas.  More properly, many of us are resistant to change in some specific area(s) of our lives.  There is so much change going on around us, and with the rate of change growing, that it can seem like I am being swept along a swift stream, out of control.  Having something unchangeable in my life can act as an anchor, giving me some sense of stability.

That anchor may be a spouse, a job, the church or some social organization.  While I may not be happy about all the change going on around me, that anchor provides stability that helps keep me grounded, preventing me from being swept off my feet and drowned.  It gives me a comfortable place to retreat to, a place where I know what to expect, a shelter in the storm.

But what happens when that anchor loses it grip: the spouse dies; the job is lost; church life is disrupted, the economy crashes and your retirement is lost, etc?  Is your life thrown into turmoil?  Or do you have an anchor that will not drag, that remains secure regardless that happens around you.
19 We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, 20 where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf. He has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek. - Hebrews 6:19-20 NIV
The author of Hebrews here refers to an anchor for our soul, one that is firm and secure; it will not drag even during the most violent storms of life.  This anchor is hope.  Not a wishful hope; but an earnest expectation.  It is an assurance that regardless what might happen to me here, God has prepared something much better for me and will see me through to it.  No matter how much the world around me may change; no matter how much relationships may change; no matter how my own economic or social condition changes; one thing never does.  I have that hope as an anchor for my soul, preventing me from being swept along with the torrent.

Do you have an undraggable anchor to sustain you in the uncertainty of this life?

Monday, November 12, 2012

A Grateful Veteran

Yesterday was Veteran's Day, a time for our country to honor those who have served in our nations military; many of whom made the ultimate sacrifice in that service.  I am very thankful for all those who have served over the years; in particular my own father, my wife's dad, and both of our children, as well as countless friends over the years who have invested some portion of their lives as sailors, soldiers or airmen.

As a veteran myself, I would like to give thanks to my country for the opportunity to serve, and for all that I got out of it.  I gave 6 years to the U.S. Navy, but the reward for that time continues to bear fruit.  It is hard to imagine what life would be like now apart from that experience.

I joined the Navy fresh out of High School.  The Navy provided me with an opportunity to leave home, while still providing a safety net as I continued to grow and develop.  I am very thankful for the growth that occurred during that period; emotionally, mentally and spiritually.  I learned a trade, that while not practiced much afterwards, did prepare me for my ultimate career and thought me how to think logically.  And I was able to see and experience a significant portion of the world, places that I likely would not have had the opportunity to get to otherwise.  35 years later, the memories of my time in the Navy are good.

Being a veteran gave me a leg up when I started to work as a civilian.  The veterans preference can be a big plus when entering into the federal workforce.  It also gave me more 'time on the job' than I would otherwise have had, giving me more leave and credit toward retirement.

I have a Bachelors degree in Computer Science.   And it didn't cost me a penny.  The G.I. Bill paid for all of my tuition and books.  Unlike so many that I've worked with over the years, I had no college debt to have to deal with.

I own a home that was purchased under the G. I. Bill.  No down payment and easy to secure.  While we had to deal with regular mortgage lenders once the loan was finalized, we were spared much of the hoop jumping in getting the deal made.

Yes, I made a 6 year investment in the Navy.  But that investment has been rewarded many times over.  While not everyone's experience is the same as mine, I am one very grateful veteran and want to thank a country that does so much for its veterans.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Spreading the Wealth

I was watching one of the campaign workers on the winning side of the recent election gush about what would be accomplished in the coming four years.  And during that she made a statement that I had heard before, but had never really thought about.  I do not remember precisely what she said but it was to the effect that they would continue the effort to level out incomes.

Much of what is spewed out during election campaigning gets filtered out somewhere between my ears and conscious thought: not sure why this particular statement did not. But the thought has settled down and is causing an itch that I need to scratch. I should admit upfront that I do not know all that is meant by this expression, and my understanding of economic stuff is generally limited to making periodic trips to Lowes or REI to stimulate the economy.  But when has expertise ever been a requirement for having an opinion.  And so, without further ado ...

I am assuming that many think of income leveling as having all of us fully employed, making good wages, and with no lower or upper class.  And that sounds really great.  But is it feasible?  Quite honestly, I don't see how it could.

It seems like a basic assumption to this is that all people are equal.  Now while there are some aspects of that which I believe have merit; it is not really a reflection of reality: we are all different.  As impressed as I might be with my meager athletic ability, I am not a Michael Jordan.  Neither am I an Einstein, a Billy Graham, a Bill Gates, or a skilled physician or business man.  I have an aptitude for certain fields that society seems to find valuable and is willing to reward me for.  And not in other fields.  And that is the same for pretty much all of us.

Is it reasonable for me, as a computer programmer with 4 years of college, to expect to earn the same salary as an experienced heart surgeon with 8+ years of college and medical school.  Or as a high school drop out who is flipping burgers at the local fast food joint?  Is it unreasonable to expect that those 'professions' that are more essential to society, that require more preparation, or are more difficult to fill, should be more highly compensated than those that are less essential, require less training or are easy to fill?

Even within a single profession, say computer programming, does it make sense to pay all of us the same amount?  If that were to happen, why would I put forth any more effort than was required to keep my job?  I might like that as a struggling programmer, but it would really offer no incentive to improve, or excel, if all I get is my own job satisfaction.

If I have the ability to efficiently and effectively run a big business, one that employees many people; is there anything inherently wrong with being well compensated?  After all, my ability is helping to keep many other people employed.  Why should my salary be the same as theirs.

Now I am all for having everyone gainfully employed and able to care for their families.  But it seems to me that wage leveling is not the way to do that.  Instead, it seems like it would disincentivize most people from becoming doctors or lawyers (maybe not a big loss) where the salary would not recompense the long training effort required.  It would offer no reason to advance in my job, since there is no financial reward for doing so.  And is it that much of a reach to imagine that this would even extend to those unwilling to work?  I wonder...

Before leaving this topic, I found an interesting quote attributed to Mikhail Gorbachev.  If even he found this idea to be foolish, why is it being touted for our country?

“Wage-leveling has a destructive impact not only on the economy but also on people’s morality, and their entire way of thinking and acting. It diminishes the prestige of conscientious, creative labor, weakens discipline, destroys interest in improving skills, and is detrimental to the competitive spirit in work. We must say bluntly that wage-leveling is a reflection of petty bourgeois views which have nothing in common with Marxism-Leninism or scientific socialism.”

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Parable of the Persistent Widow

Some of Jesus parables are pretty straight forward and easy to understand.  But some are a bit more challenging.  The parable of the Persistent Widow is, at least for me, one of the latter.
1Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. 2He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. 3And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’
4“For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, 5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”
6And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? 8I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” - Luke 18:1-8 NIV
This parable starts us off with the moral to the story, which is good.  We should be persistent in prayer, not giving up if we seem not to get a response.  In other words, don't be afraid to be a nag; assuming of course that you are praying appropriately.

This parable has three characters.  The first is a rascal of a judge who apparently is in the judge business solely for his own benefit.  He neither cares about what God thinks of him, of what the people around him think.  We might wonder how such a person could become, and stay, a judge.  But that is not really material to the parable.

The second character is as weak as the judge is powerful.  A widow in that day was nearly helpless, dependent on family or the charity of neighbors and friends.  And this widow seemed to be a bit short in the support department and has turned to the town's judge for help.

The third character is really unknown, other than as the widows adversary.  The widows specific complaint against her adversary is unknown, but it is likely that he was taking advantage of her position as a widow to enrich his own coffers.  He could have been a money lender, a rich business man, a tax collector, or even a neighbor who wanted what little she had.

In the parable, the widow comes to the judge in order to get justice from her adversary.  Exactly what constitutes justice for the widow is unknown.  She may have wanted something returned; she may have wanted some penalty or debt dropped; she may have wanted a restraining order against harassment.  But whatever it was she wanted, the judge was not interested in granting it.  I think it would be safe to assume that if the widow had come before the judge with a large enough bribe, that he would have ruled for her.  But since there was no benefit to himself he refused to get involved.

But the widow was not easily put off and kept coming before the judge with her plea.  And eventually the judge responded, granting her request.  Why?  Because he finally recognized the rightness of her request?  No!  But because he finally saw some value for himself, self preservation, in getting her to quit coming before him.  He gave her justice, not because it was right, but for self serving reasons.

A difficulty in this parable comes when we try to put God in place of the unjust judge and ourselves, as the widow, encouraged to nag him until he finally gives into us.  But I do not think that is an appropriate response.  Instead, we should view God as the opposite of the unjust judge.  If even an unjust judge will eventually wear out and give us what we ask for, how much more will God respond to those he loves, providing them with justice, and doing so quickly.

The bigger difficulty with this parable, at least for me, is what is meant by receiving justice quickly.  It is tempting to think that I should be able to pray to God about someone who is causing me grief, and have that problem go away.  But that seems not to happen in real life.  Instead, untold numbers of devout believers suffer terribly, some because of their faith, some because of natural disasters, and some simply because of the greed of other people.  And seldom do I see God intervening, at least in this life, to resolve those things.

The only response I can really make to this is to echo Paul in 2 Timothy 1:12: "That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet this is no cause for shame, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day."  I have entrusted my life to God, and am persuaded that he will keep me safe, regardless what happens to the shell I inhabit here.  God will deal with all that in his time.  I will pray and trust.

And, when Christ returns, will strive to be faithful.