Three Books that Profoundly Influenced Me: Book 2

I was going to title this series “Three Books Every Evangelical Should Read,” but that seems more than I can rightly say. “Three Books I Wish Every Evangelical Would Read” is a more accurate title. But ultimately this is about books that have influenced me, so we’ll leave it at that.

I’ve read a number of good books over the years, but these three books were so profound to me that I think others could benefit too. I’ll point out the obvious: this is a subjective list. However, these books cover issues that I think can have deeply positive influence in the evangelical church.

Book 1: The Myth of Certainty: The Reflective Christian and the Risk of Commitment

Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, N. T. Wright (HarperOne, 2008)

I put off writing this second entry because I needed to think through what it was that was so profound about this book. It keeps creeping up in conversation and thoughts and even sermons, but it has been so long since I read it that I couldn’t remember the specifics without giving it some thought. But here is my conclusion: Surprised by Hope gave me a theology of creation, which in a way also saved my faith. This is not what a person would think they’re getting when they pick up the book, but that is what I received in the end. I think the process for me actually began when I read Paul Marshall’s Heaven is Not My Home, but it was really brought home in Wright’s book. Our theology of creation has ramifications on various different aspects of life and faith, so this books influenced has cropped up in all sort of places.

I was brought up in a conservative Christian home and my parents as well as the circles in which we lived worshipped were also conservative Christians. That can mean a lot of things, and not necessarily bad things (in many ways I’m still a conservative Christian), but I mean something specifically: dispensationalist Christianity. This is a (relatively) new understanding of scripture particularly in relation to prophecy, the book of Revelation, and the end times. The Left Behind series of books is deeply dispensationalist. Dispensationalism in my experience is almost obsessed about prophecy and the end times, and the core element is the rapture: the idea that at some point in the future, Christians will be whisked away from earth to an eternity of disembodied (“spiritual”) existence in heaven. In one way or another this is what it meant to “go to heaven when you die”: you either go when you die or when Jesus comes again.

At the time I didn’t have a problem with this theology per se, but there were other things I was thinking about in life that had me wondering. In dispensationalist thinking, the earth and creation in general are not something to be concerned about since it will all be destroyed someday anyway at the final judgment. I have always loved nature and there was a part of me that thought it was a shame that in the long run it would all disappear. As I got older I started wondering about why God created the world in the first place: if he knew it was going to fail, or if it was a mistake, or if it was just intended to be temporary. Why not just go straight to eternal disembodied bliss? Why the hassle with physical creation?

Enter Paul Marshall and finally N.T. Wright. Surprised by Hope made sense of the world because it affirmed creation as good. When God created he said that it was good and when he had created humans and finished it all, he said it was very good. When God entered his creation as the Word-made-Flesh—as Jesus—he affirmed creation again taking on the embodied existence of human creatures. When Jesus died and rose again, creation is once again affirmed as good because Jesus rose again bodily (albeit a new body). What Wright’s book made clear was that creation was meant to be and will continue to be. The hope of salvation is not “going to heaven when you die”, but resurrection in the new heavens and the new earth. The story of salvation is not just about forgiveness of sin, but of renewing and restoring all of creation.

This put the pieces together for me again. Suddenly the world and the cross made a great deal more sense to me, and I was given a vision of creation and hope that was clearly consistent with scripture (where dispensationalism seemed to me to do a lot of weird and unclear things with scripture). Suddenly we all had a reason to be here on earth—we aren’t just biding time until we get to heaven; we aren’t just passing through, this world is our home.

All kinds of other things have been unfolding from this: work is good; creation needs our stewardship; our bodies are good and are essential to being human (mind, soul, spirit, body are not independent things), and the list will continue to grow.

Wright’s intention, as I recall, was to correct our understanding of heaven and the afterlife, but in doing so he also showed how and why this life matters, too.

The Challenge of Preaching Jesus

Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to guest speak at a local church. The pastor is a friend of mine and he asked me to fill in for him one Sunday while he was on holidays. His church is going through a series on the Sermon on the Mount and the passage assigned to me was the one about not taking oaths (Matthew 5:33-37). It was an interesting challenge to speak in a context where I had little to no connection. I was able to attend a service there at the end of my holidays and catch a bit of my friend’s approach to the Sermon on the Mount, and a couple of their young people attend our youth program, but otherwise I had little context for this community.

But the biggest challenge was the text itself. There is a long history of trying to explain away the Sermon on the Mount, finding ways around Jesus’ challenging commands to the point of some suggesting that the point of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount was for his followers to recognize how impossible the demands of Jesus’ teaching are so that they would fall back on his grace rather than their own effort. I’m okay with falling on God’s grace instead of my own effort, but I’m not convinced that that means I am just a passive agent with no responsibilities to act. Jesus, after all, calls us to obey his commands. At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, he identifies his followers as the light of the world, whose good works the world needs to see, and he ends the Sermon with the parable of the wise and foolish builders, imploring his followers to do what he says.

But what does this mean, practically speaking? Even asking this questions feels a bit like trying to get around the commands, but it’s a relevant question given his command about not making oaths. One commentator says that Jesus is speaking specifically about a court of law: Christians should not “swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God,” but just let their “yes be yes.” Jesus’ teaching is about nothing else, said this commentator. Other commentators suggested the much broader category of honesty and being people of our word.

With some hesitation, I went with the broader approach. But when it came to applying Jesus’ teaching, I experienced some serious inner turmoil. What could I honestly call us to? And what does “honestly” mean, when I wasn’t sure I completely grasped Jesus intended point? The general truth of being people of our word can be found in the text, but is that really what Jesus was intending? On the other hand, was I comfortable telling people not to take oaths in court, when in some sense that kind of nitpicking seems akin to the legalism Jesus challenged the Pharisees about?

Afterwards some people asked me about the implications for court, etc. I was honest and said I wasn’t sure, but that I wasn’t comfortable giving blanket statements about how to apply this teaching in every situation.

The week before I had preached at my own church and faced a different challenge: how to preach a truth scripture is pretty clear about that will challenge some of my church’s deeply-held values. It wasn’t an issue of sin, but about belief and values. Evangelicals hold family (that is, parents and children, and sometimes extended family) very dearly, only less important in life than God himself. But the New Testament fairly clearly envisions a new family created in and through Christ that demands a loyalty over and above the nuclear family, and marriage itself is not the bedrock of God’s kingdom.

How does one preach that reality in a way that can be heard and understood? It’s difficult. Both of these recent sermons were probably the most challenging I’ve prepared for and preached. I’m not sure how well I did (in terms of content).

Great but not necessarily great (still thinking about The Tragically Hip).

Last week the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) aired The Tragically Hip’s final concert on every outlet (radio, tv, streaming) commercial-free. It was bit of an emotional experience for me, but I’ve written previously on how this band had been part of the soundtrack for much of my life. It also confirmed to me—again—how smart phones and social media can prevent me from being present in any given moment. I did too much texting when I should have been watching and listening.

It was interesting to read the comments after all the fuss of the concert. Most people posted things expressing sadness or praising their music. Other people made comments ranging from feeling like they’re the only people who don’t care about the Hip (legitimate, considering how much the attention the band was getting) to suggestions that there’s a myth about the greatness of the band, the range of comments suggesting an underlying pride in the fact that they don’t care.

The comments undermining The Tragically Hip’s “greatness” or how “good” they are seem to miss the point. I don’t think all the fuss had much to do with the “greatness” of the band. I was a fan for many years, but I confess that I didn’t pay much attention to their last few albums (I also confess that mid-concert I ordered their last two to complete my collection). However, I really like their music, and so I consider them “great,” but not necessarily great in some kind of semi-objective, analytical way that an expert would identify “Starry Night” or “The Jack Pine” as great paintings. That’s beyond my skills. I just know what I like.  (Though I have no doubt many would consider them great in that way.)

The point of all the fuss is that this band tapped into the Canadian psyche, telling Canadian stories. Their music—great or not—became part of what it means to be Canadian, like poutine, “eh?”, mounties, loonies, and Tim Hortons. Nobody has to agree that Tim Hortons is great in order to agree that they are a significant part of Canadian identity. That 1 out of every 3 Canadians watched or listened to the concert a week ago says enough.

And I, for one, thought that it was a beautiful national moment.

Gord Downie, the lead singer, was certainly not up to his usual antics and was quite reserved, which I imagine has to do with the brain cancer, but it was still a great show. Here’s a song from that final concert:

Three Books that Profoundly Influenced Me: Book 1

I was going to title this series “Three Books Every Evangelical Should Read,” but that seems more than I can rightly say. “Three Books I Wish Every Evangelical Would Read” is a more accurate title. But ultimately this is about books that have influenced me, so we’ll leave it at that.

I’ve read a number of good books over the years, but these three books were good in a way that I want everyone to experience them. I’ll point out the obvious: this is a subjective list. However, these books cover issues that I think can have deeply positive influence in the evangelical church.

The Myth of Certainty: The Reflective Christian & the Risk of Commitment, Daniel Taylor (IVP, 1992)

I hope I can do this book justice. Last time I read it was more than 10 years ago. I’m due to read it again. But it had an enormously positive influence on my faith. This book helped me realize that my growing unease and, yes, uncertainty, about some of the beliefs and doctrines I had been brought up with did not mean I had to abandon ship altogether. I was a young university student not so much struggling with faith in Christ, but with some of the other doctrines and beliefs relating to Christianity and the Bible that in my tradition were presented as foundational—so foundational that I was reluctant to express my doubts about them. You might say this book saved my faith.

In The Myth of Certainty, Taylor argues that uncertainty is not the enemy of faith, but in fact a great help to faith, moving us to depend on God more than on our own intellectual certitudes. In fact, Taylor argues that the notion of faith (or trust) implies a level of uncertainty: “Normally doubt is seen as sapping faith’s strength. Why not the reverse? Where there is doubt, faith has its reason for being. Clearly faith is not needed where certainty supposedly exists.” (81-82)

Taylor isn’t the first person to make this point. I’ve heard it from Lesslie Newbiggin, Frederick Buechner, Anne Lammot (not personally, of course, but in their writings), and I’m sure that list could go on for quite a while. But Taylor was the first one to make this point to me at a crucial time in my life and faith.

Taylor takes it a step further—and this was also crucial for me in a university setting—by noting that all of us (in my case, all of the people I interacted with at the university) are on the same level, the same playing field, when it comes to what we know or believe. All of us have “question-able” foundational assumptions upon which we base our beliefs about this or that, and those assumptions are based on other question-able assumptions. Taylor argues (as I recall) that this does not lead us to despair, but calls us to risk commitment to some foundational assumptions, even if it is possible to question them. We all do this every day. This is both the myth of certainty and the risk of commitment.

(This might actually be Lesslie Newbigging breaking in to my memory. He writes, “All major theories…rest on fundamental assumptions which can be questioned.  But the questioning, if it is to be rational, has to rely on other fundamental questions which can in turn be questioned.  It follows…that there can be no knowing without personal commitment.  We must believe in order to know.” [from Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt & Certainty in Christian Discipleship]. This certainly echoes the sense I recall getting from Taylor.)

Taylor writes, “The goal of faith is not to create a set of immutable, rationalized, precisely defined and defendable beliefs to preserve forever.  It is to recover a relationship with God.” (123) In short, faith is not about intellectual certainty, it is about a commitment to a reasonable assumption: in my case, relationship with God in Christ, and from there the notion that the Christian faith presents an accurate and coherent understanding of our world.

Next up: Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, N. T. Wright (HarperOne, 2008)

 

The Hip soundtrack to my life.

Just last week it was announced that Gordon Downie, lead singer of acclaimed Canadian band The Tragically Hip, has terminal brain cancer. None of the major rock deaths from the past year—David Bowie, Prince, Merle Haggard, Glen Frey—had any personal effect on me, but Gord Downie will affect me a bit. He’s one of my favourite voices in rock music and the music of the Tragically Hip was a soundtrack running underneath the formative years of my life and beyond.

They’re doing a final tour this summer. I’m thinking of going when they hit Edmonton in July. I saw them in Saskatoon nearly 20 years ago, and it was disappointing (poor sound—but I know better now: sound is rarely great at a rock show).

Matt Gurney, columnist at The National Post, gets it: …”the Tragically Hip has been a big, big part of the soundtrack of my life for decades. I strongly associate periods with the music I was into at that time. I had Elvis Costello years. A long Collective Soul period. Went full Johnny Cash for a while. But throughout it all, there’s been Tragically Hip…” I had a long U2 period that overlapped other periods for a while, an R.E.M. period, a brief 54-40 (also Canadian!) period, a Sloan (Canadian!) period, an Arcade Fire (Canadian!) period, but throughout it all were The Tragically Hip.

So the last little while I’ve been listening to The Hip again and reflecting on all the different stages of my life with which they are associated—mental pictures and memories of people, places, activities, and journeys. It’s all a bit melancholy now with the news about Downie. But here are some of the memories, meaningless to you the reader, poignant for me.

“New Orleans is Sinking” (from their first full-length album, Up to Here [released 1989]) – It’s elementary school, I’m in a buddy’s driveway. The high school principal’s son is playing this song across the road.

Road Apples (released 1991) – I would later come to love this album, but first knew it only because “Little Bones” was the song for the opening credits for a CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) music television show.

Fully Completely (1992) – I’m in high school. It’s a hot summer day, I’m on a secondary highway north of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan in a buddy’s car, going to fish in Buffalo Pound Lake. We listen to this album there and back. “Courage” and “Pigeon Camera” always bring that day to mind. He would be killed in a work accident several years later.

Day for Night (1994) – The first Hip album I bought when it was released, making me officially caught up to the times as a Hip fan. High school: my fishing friend plays me this new album on his portable CD player on the bus to a soccer tournament. College: a buddy plays “Scared” on his guitar in the yearbook office, next to the student lounge.

Trouble at the Henhouse (1996) – “Ahead By a Century” is the first Hip song I learn on guitar.Legendary Canadian comedy troupe The Kids in the Hall, which I loved at the time, used one of the songs from this album for the soundtrack to their cult-favourite movie Brain Candy. I have a t-shirt with the album cover on it. My older brother gave me that shirt for my 19th birthday in December 1997. I still have that shirt. It is in perfect condition. Dixie hates it and wants to get rid of it because it’s so old. Along with the shirt, my brother gave me a ticket for the Hip’s concert for their new album.

Live Between Us (Live, 1997)

Phantom Power (1998) – the first single from this album “Poets” was released in the spring of 1998. I was in the middle front seat of a Ford F-350, somewhere in the wilds of northern British Columbia with my tree planting crew. Everyone else was unimpressed, but I was delighted. That August I would see them live in Saskatoon with the ticket my brother had bought me. The concert was disappointing—my expectations were high, the sound was poor. I bought a t-shirt there. It did not last more than a year or two.

Music @ Work  (2000) – This album was released in the spring of 2000. I remember this because I paid twice as much for it as I should have at a local music store in Whitecourt, Alberta—again with my fishing buddy from Fully Completely—because I couldn’t wait for the tree planting season to be over to buy it at a chain store at a lower price. We again listened to it in the cab of a Ford F-350 on the way back to our camp north of Whitecourt. This album was a huge departure for The Hip, but I loved most of this album from the start. I would get married that August.

“It’s a Good Life if You Don’t Weaken” (from In Violet Light [2002]) – I’m sitting at the second desk at the front of my father-in-law’s law office. My pregnant-for-the-first time wife is probably in the back working. I stream this song from The Hip’s website and instantly love it. In fact, it is one of my favourite Hip songs of all time. The rest of the album would take some time to grow on me.

After this album, I checked out of The Tragically Hip’s world for a couple of years: In Between Evolution (2004); Yer Favourites (2005);  That Night in Toronto (Live) (2005); World Container (2006); then…

We are the Same (2009) – spring or summer: I’m with my wife and three kids in our 1992 Honda Accord waiting in line at the drive-through car wash in Prince Albert. We’re listening to this album, which I’ve just purchased, and I’m delighted. The Hip seem back on form. Later that summer we would move to Manitoba to attend seminary.

Then: Now for Plan A (2012) – I stream this album on Rdio, but am disappointed.

So, I’ve drifted away from the Hip these last years, but the old soundtrack still hums in the background. It’s strange: I was a huge U2 fan, and I still love their earlier albums, but they mostly stay on the shelf, not listened to. Same with R.E.M. and Arcade Fire. I listened to these groups for hours and hours over and over again, but at some point I moved on to something else, and while they still have a place in my heart and I would still list them among my all-time favourites, it is only to The Tragically Hip that I return regularly. At the very least, a summer road-trip needs at least one listen to Fully Completely.

Remembering Dad

(cross-posted from Facebook)

I think I’ll break my Facebook “fast” to say a few words about Dad. He died 5 years ago today, as Dixie mentioned earlier.

I’ve never been one to miss people all that much, even those dearest to me. I don’t know why. I sometimes wonder if there’s something wrong with me. But that’s one reason I didn’t think to say anything on Facebook. But I do think about Dad from time to time, particularly around this time of year: his birthday in mid-April and his date of death just over a month later.

Several of you said very kind and true things about my Dad in comments on Dixie’s post today. Thanks for that. It’s interesting how even the not-so-great memories of people will, with time, start to develop a sheen of sorts. Remembering seems to rub away the spots of corrosion and rust and leave polished metal underneath.

One of my great friends sent me a very kind message today in which he remembered some things about Dad which have been meaningful to him in the strange way that memory makes things meaningful, things which for me (at the time anyway) would have been more embarrassing than anything. My friend said he still uses a line that my Dad would, with a twinkle in his eye, say to him: “If you sucked as hard as you blew, you’d have the moon in your face.”

I remember him saying that, but I don’t remember the twinkle in his eye. I just remember feeling mildly uncomfortable because it made no sense to sense to any of us (or at least I thought not). It was just another weird saying that my grumpy, gruff Dad would randomly lob at people.

But now, all these years later, I think it’s hilarious, even though the phrase still doesn’t really make sense to me (or maybe it’s just starting to make sense), because that phrase is just so Dad.

I wish I could remember some of his other turns of phrase. But Dixie and I do carry some of them forward into our own family. Some of them we share just with each other. We will imitate him from time to time. We will say, “I like that pie,” when eating a delicious pizza. Or we will refer to that ubiquitous Seattle coffee company as “Starbuck” without the “s” at the end. And when we go for a walk, we’ll say it’s to “blow the stink off.” Those are all Dad-isms.

Maybe it’s not that I don’ t miss people, but that I don’t take enough time to think about them—to really think deeply and remember—because I really do miss Dad.

A prayer for trust

Ran across this beautiful prayer by Henri Nouwen this morning, quoted in A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants:

O Lord, who else or what else can I desire but you? You are my Lord, Lord of my heart, mind, and soul. You know me through and through. In and through you everything that is finds its origin and goal. You embrace all that exists and care for it with divine love and compassion. Why, then, do I keep expecting happiness and satisfaction outside of you? Why do I keep relating to you as one of my many relationships, instead of my only relationship, in which all other ones are grounded? Why do I keep looking for popularity, respect from others, success, acclaim, and sensual pleasures? Why, Lord, is it so hard for me to make you the only one? Why do I keep hesitating to surrender myself totally to you?

Help me, O Lord, to let me old self die, to let die the thousand big and small ways in which I am still building up my false self and trying to cling to my false desires. Let me be reborn in you and see through you the world in the right way, so that all my actions, words, and thought can become a hymn of praise to you.

I need your loving grace to travel on this hard road that leads to the death of my old self and to a new life in and for you. I know and trust that this is the road to freedom.

Lord, dispel my mistrust and help me become a trusting friend. Amen.

Unhurried Delight

Every year as part of maintaining “good ministerial standing,” our denomination requires its pastors to fill in a form in which we list educational and personal growth experiences, such as courses taken, workshops or conferences attended, and books read. I keep track of what I’ve read in a little notebook (and on Goodreads) and so I go back and look at what I’ve read.

What troubled me this time around is that I couldn’t remember a thing about one or two of the books I had read this year. I remember reading them (I think), but I don’t remember what they said. Which makes me wonder, why did I read them?

Eugene Peterson said somewhere (but I’m quoting his Twitter feed, and the same quote pops up every now and then), “Reading is a gift, but only if the words are taken into the soul – eaten, chewed, gnawed, received in unhurried delight.” Coincidentally, it was one of Peterson’s books that I don’t remember anything about.

His words get me every time. How often do I read with “unhurried delight”? Rarely. Usually I’m more concerned with getting through the book and adding it to my “books read” notebook. Part of the problem is that I have so many books that I want to read (and have already purchased in anticipation of reading them) that I feel like I can’t keep up, so I read quickly if I can.

Occasionally a book will be so striking that I soak it up in a hurry and remember it, but that’s not normally the case. But what’s the point in reading if I can’t remember it? Is there value in reading simply for the sake of reading and being changed in small ways along the way? I think so.

On the other hand, there’s really little value in hurrying through a book if I won’t remember any of it anyway.

I need more “unhurried delight” in my life—not just in what I read, but in all of my life.

All Shall be Well (Serendipiday)

Dixie and I have a long-running joke about what our epitaphs will say, based on our personalities and approach to life. Mine will say, “All in good time.” The punchline is that hers will say, “That was a bit excessive.” It’s hilarious. Or it would be if you knew us and I was telling you about it face-to-face.

Another option for my epitaph is “All shall be well.” I’ve never read anything by the fifteenth century mystic Julian of Norwich, except for this one line:

All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.

This line has had a profound effect on my faith. I deeply, passionately believe her words to be true. They are hope-filled words that I carry with me wherever I go. That’s why I think my epitaph could also say (and perhaps should say), “All shall be well.”

The last few days I’ve been at a retreat centre in Chicago, taking the last class in the ordination process for my denomination. Yesterday I told one of my class-mates about our epitaphs and about “All shall be well” and how profound those words have been for me. He laughed about the epitaphs and understood my deep appreciation for Julian’s words.

The class called “Vocational Excellence” and it works through some of the competencies and requirements of pastoral work, with a particular emphasis on self-care. They provide an optional session with a spiritual director. I’ve been hearing for years now from books, colleagues, and teachers that spiritual direction is an essential resource for pastoral ministry, but due to location and fear (of the unknown) I have not actually pursued finding a spiritual director. So I gladly took up the opportunity this weekend.

There were four options for spiritual directors and I didn’t know any of them. It was a bit of a crap-shoot and it made me slightly nervous because I have heard that a person won’t connect with every spiritual director. For some reason this session felt kind of like a one-shot deal, so the choice had to be right (if you know me at all, or if you’ve eaten at a restaurant with me, this will make a lot of sense). For reasons I won’t get into here—reasons I don’t fully understand, to be honest—I chose the only man on the list as my spiritual director.

My session of spiritual direction was first thing this morning. After a brief explanation of how this session would go, my director suggested a couple of questions I could use as a jumping-off point for our time together. One of them was “What’s your experience of God now?” and I went with that one. I talked in a meandering way about fatigue and stress and the relation between faith and doubt. We talked about that for a bit. I mentioned Frederick Buechner on faith and doubt and muddled my way through a pseudo-paraphrase of this Buechner gem:

I can hardly even imagine what kind of an experience a genuine, self-authenticating religious experience would be.  Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt?  If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me. (The Alphabet of Grace, p. 47)

My spiritual director said, “Funny you should mention Buechner. I have a quote of his in my pocket.” He had meant to use it earlier when they were introduced to the class, having anticipated the need to define spiritual direction.

We talked about doubt and how perhaps doubt is a positive thing in that it could signal spiritual growth, that it suggests that a person is actually listening, to God, to life; that it’s in certainty that a person no longer listens, no longer pays attention. Somehow this led us to the topic of coincidence: he suggested that coincidence may actually be God speaking to us, so apparent “coincidences” are moments when we should really pay attention. He didn’t use the word, but I think he was talking about something like serendipity. God-ordained serendipity. And it was already happening in this session.

This is what spiritual directors do: they listen. They listen and they help the directee see God at work in his or her life. So it probably shouldn’t have surprised me that my spiritual director could anticipate where I was heading.

I began talking about the sense I have had recently that what I need to do right now is slow down, breathe, and listen, but then I lost my train of thought. It had something to do with prayer, but I couldn’t remember what it was. So I sat silently, reflecting.

After a few moments, my spiritual director spoke up. He said that Mother Theresa was once asked about prayer.

“What is prayer?” she was asked.

“Listening to God,” she replied.

“What does he say?” she was asked.

She replied, “Nothing.”

This was exactly where I was going before I lost my train of thought. Prayer. Listening. I told him about how helpful it was to me when I read in one of Eugene Peterson’s books (or possibly several of them) that prayer is a two-way conversation. It’s not just me talking to God. It’s also me listening to God. I get that; it makes sense. But with that came this frustration: when I listen, I don’t hear God say anything. What am I supposed to hear? What does it mean that I don’t hear anything when I listen?

The point of what Mother Theresa said is that it’s okay that God says nothing when she listens. She is still listening. She is still praying. That’s the point: they are together, listening, and hearing. My spiritual director connected the dots a little more for me: it may be that God’s not audibly speaking to me, but God is nevertheless speaking to me. We talked briefly about the ways this is true.

The whole session was wonderful and deeply helpful and affirming to me. Silence on many different levels is okay. It’s not that I’m missing something. It’s about being together with God in the moment.

Slow down. Breathe. Listen.

We talked about what’s next. He said that while most people prefer to have in-person spiritual direction, he does sometimes do direction via Skype. I thanked him and told him that I plan to pursue spiritual direction, but that I’d prefer in-person direction. “I’ll do some searching in my area,” I said, “but if nothing works out I’ll get in touch with you.”

He gave me his business card just in case and I headed back to class, which had been in session during my time with the spiritual director. I sat down. I had met this spiritual director a few years earlier in a different context, but couldn’t remember his last name, so I scanned the information on his card.

I turned the business card over. On the back of the card were these printed words:

All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

New camera

I’ve been saving up for some time now for a new camera. My Pentax K10D was in need of repair with a price-tag of $300+. For that price, I may as well work towards a newer camera. To that end, I recently purchased a Pentax K-3, their newest(ish) top-of-their line DSLR. My iPhone 6 has been a wonderful companion and I have taken some great photographs with it, but it became clear that it just couldn’t quite do all that I wanted a camera to do. For example, low-light pictures were grainy, and often even otherwise sharp and well-lit photographs still seemed “flat.” Plus I had a bunch of good lenses sitting around.

But enough apologetics. Last night I finally found some time to play with the camera a bit. I’m very pleased with the results. The camera does seem to have a back-focus issue (camera focuses beyond the point it tells me it’s focussed on), which is what needed repair on my K10D, but these newer models have manual auto-focus fine-tuning built right in. So I can solve the focus issues… I just need to decide if I should nevertheless send it in while it’s still on warranty.

Anyway, after fixing the focus issues, I took some black and white shots of our cats. I’m quite pleased with the results. Pictures taken with a 50mm lens at either f1.4 or f2.0, all of them at ISO6400 (except the last, which was ISO3200). Some of them are a little darker than I’d like, but these are all unedited, other than for size (and for the camera’s own processing to b&w jpegs).

I promise I won’t turn this into a blog of cat pictures.

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