Praying in groups

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Like my father, I find consistent prayer to be difficult, probably more so because I have a difficult time keeping a regular quiet time. I try to justify this by saying I have a more casual constant communication thing going with God, which typically takes the form of me making an aside request when I think about it, or apologizing for something I said that was naughty or blasphemous.

Ben TrubeThe one thing that has been helpful in developing persistent prayer is my life group. While I don’t tend to be the type that actually speaks up during prayer (I know big shocker right), I do try to take in everything that has been going on with everybody throughout the past week and to lift them up in prayer. It provides a context to ask how things have been going in the past week, and to talk about any changes. It’s also a comfortable forum to keep asking for prayer since you kind of have a shorthand with those in the group.

And you can refine prayers in this fashion as my dad talked about. Prayers about your happiness at your job can involve in specific requests for positions, or prayers for better interpersonal relationships, or even just prayers of more relief and peace at home.

This certainly isn’t constant. It’s once a week, except on holidays and mostly not in the summer, but it’s better than nothing. And since we’ve been hosting lately we’ve actually been doing the whole showing up thing which is so critical to any enterprise.

I think we all have the praying for ourselves thing down decently well, even it just takes the form of requests for health or luck or whatever. And we probably include our spouses in that list, but it can sometimes be difficult to pray for others. Being an only child I tend to see the world in constant relation to myself and my own perspectives. It can be difficult to take in the problems of others, but I find that when I do I feel much better than when I’m just focused inward. And again, the life group provides a context for doing just that, with people you’re familiar with and care about.

I think specificity in prayer isn’t a bad thing. Praying for “God’s will” can be helpful, but it can be a little difficult to determine if that prayer has been answered or not. Praying that an upcoming meeting goes well, or that you have a safe trip to your relatives, or that you really enjoy a sandwich are all good prayers.

What’s been going on in your life that needs persistent prayer? Do you feel God has been listening or are you getting more of a meh vibe?

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Forgiveness for Ourselves

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I was listening to the live stream of This American Life this morning and happened to run across an old show from its first year “Anger and Forgiveness” which I think has relevance both to our current societal moment, and the passage from Matthew 18:23-34.

Ben TrubeI’d been thinking this week about the boundaries we place on forgiveness. All of us I think have some crime or some action that is our dividing line for forgiveness. We may be able to forgive someone who does drugs or robs a liquor store, but we can’t forgive someone who abuses children or commits murder. This line is in different spot for each of us, based on our own personal experiences, views and biases.

In the first act of the This American Life episode they detail a crime where a young woman drowns her two children in her car so she can stay with a rich man who doesn’t want children. She blames their disappearance on some “black man” taking them away, and uses as a defense a history of abuse by her step-father to explain her actions when discovered. This crime had outraged her community, and in fact the whole country (and at a time without social media). They wanted justice and punishment, and they wanted to stay angry.

And that anger might seem righteous. This was a terrible crime, and no matter the life that came before, it doesn’t negate the need for punishment. But Jack Hitt, frequent early contributer to TAL, wrote a piece at the time outlining the need for forgiveness, to gain some understanding of the person who committed the act, and to let go of anger. The piece itself sparked a good deal of anger, and later in the broadcast one of Hitt’s detractors argued the point that there are times where it is appropriate to stay angry, and that liberals are too quick to blame mitigating circumstances. Hitt in turn cites Christianity and the idea of forgiveness, though in a more secular way.

Our modern idea of forgiveness is less about forgiving what the person did, and more about letting go for own sake. Anger can be a destructive force in our lives and it can be unproductive to hold onto that anger. But in society we do not even question the need for punishment for a crime. We can forgive, but we do not absolve.

But Jesus’ parable goes further. Even though we have racked up a debt of sin we could never repay, God is willing to forgive us, but only if we forgive those who have wronged us. And in this case it doesn’t necessarily mean punish but feel less anger toward the person. It means allowing the person who wronged us to atone and to be redeemed.

Now I’m not saying we should rewrite our entire criminal justice system, but I do think we need to evaluate how much we lean on punitive measures as a means for justice and for restoration. A great deal of outrage this week has surrounded the lack of punishment or charges being brought against a man who depending on how you look at it either defended himself, or shot an unarmed 18 year old black man. This is a situation where holding onto anger can be nothing but destructive. Regardless of the final legal consequences, this is a situation that calls for true forgiveness.

Because if we allow ourselves to draw a line beyond which we cannot be forgiven, then none of us will be saved.

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By the way, I found a handy resource for all of Jesus’ parables online here.

Uh… *Tugs Collar*

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I’ve been finding it difficult to know exactly what to say about some of the parables in Rich’s latest series. Today’s is another challenging one, Matthew 22:1-14.

Ben TrubeThere are the obvious parallels to the wedding banquet being the kingdom of heaven, with the lord of the house being God. Beyond that, however, God acts in a retributive way we frankly don’t like to think about very much as Christians. We can maybe understand the response when his guests ignore his invitation and kill his servants, but what about those he invites off the street? Someone isn’t dressed properly and he’s thrown back outside with the weeping and the gnashing of the teeth.

“For many are invited, but few are chosen.”

We don’t like this as Christians, as people generally. I think most of us want those around us to be with us in Heaven. We don’t want to exclude.

And it may well be that this parable had more bearing on the immediate context of the pharisees than it does on today’s modern context. But a couple of parallels we could draw are evangelists, particularly missionaries spreading God’s word in dangerous corners of the world. Some people die trying to bring God’s word to the world, to invite people to the banquet. But God killing the murderers in return feels a little more Old Testament than we’re comfortable with.

The thing is this, and this is what I come back to. Heaven is not heaven to those who don’t believe in God. If you don’t believe in God, or did believe in God but actively defied him, heaven wouldn’t be your ideal place. These “chosen few” are those who do believe and wish to follow God. Few is not given a specific numerical value here, and I certainly don’t think there’s a quota. Heaven’s got room for everybody.

So how the heck do I apply this to life?

I don’t particularly love living out of the fear motive, which would be implied by the man not wearing the wedding clothes. If going to the wedding banquet is going to your eternal reward, you should be prepared for it at all times, whether it’s happening tomorrow or 20 years from now. Living for God is “wearing your wedding outfit” so to speak. And unlike the parable, this isn’t a wedding you don’t know about and were just pulled off the street. You just don’t know the date.

I like the idea of living for God as a way of building a closer relationship with him, and fulfilling the purpose he has for me, and my whole reason for being. Doing so because I’m afraid I’m going to be caught unawares isn’t really the best way to go about it.

Again I go back to context, which actually prompted me in last week’s Bible Study to say the phrase “What Jesus meant to say here was…”

I know, right?

Parables do not occur in a vacuum, and it is useful and beneficial for teaching to read the whole passage, and not just the little well-known snippets. And sometimes it’s okay to wrestle with something, come up empty, and try again later, praying for insight along the way.

I have a feeling the rest of this series is going to be like that for me?

Have you studied this passage before? What challenges you about it?

Time is not on my side

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Last Sunday’s sermon was a concluding sermon to a long series on the Christian life, and as such, it was kind of a laundry list of topics. We could probably write posts every day for three weeks on some of the questions raised, but for today I’ll be focusing on one, how am I claiming my time?

The principle here is very simple: If we don’t make a point of setting aside time for something, something else will fill that time.

Ben TrubeFor me the things that fill random available moments are watching TV, and organizing files on my computer. I keep active libraries of DRM free eBooks, comic books, music and video games I’ve purchased stored on a number of different computers and hard drives. Everything is backed up in multiple places, and needs to burned to disk so it can really be permanent. Occasionally my organization results in a well kept library that actually serves my needs (be it writing, listening to music, reading or playing games), but most of the time everything is a befuddled mess. If my digital files had a physical manifestation I would have desk drawers that would not open because they were stuffed with paper, next to a floor that I could no longer see because it is piled to the ceiling with books.

I’m not saying organization is a waste of time, but after a while it gets to be kind of ridiculous how much of my life is spent attempting it. And the reason is my materialistic need to acquire. I like having new books to read, new games to play, and new music to listen to, without the time for any of it. Even if it’s free, it’s still taking a toll on life.

I want to be devoting more time to studying of the Bible and more time to writing, while still managing to spend quality time with my wife and my new dog. So far, I’ve gotten pretty good about figuring how to write, even if it means perfecting my writing down to a fever-pitch stream of consciousness leaping from my fingertips. But I’m frankly lousy at devotion, even when I do make time for it.

I’m good at trying new plans, coming up with creative ways to get God to fit into time I’m already spending, but it’s not particularly setting aside special time for him. The only times I set aside time to be specifically focusing on God are when I write these posts, go to church on Sunday, or go to life group on Wednesday (assuming I’m awake for any of it, including the writing).

This is probably one where I can’t just pray things will get better and do nothing. I have to actually make some choices in life, shift my priorities. Yes, there are only so many hours in the day, but there are way more of them than you think.

What occupies your time when you’re not thinking about it?

Cost of Work

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Rich’s sermon this Sunday was … dense. We could probably spend a couple of weeks on reflecting on the issues raised by the Christian “at work” particularly the ways work has evolved in this fallen world. For me the thing that probably sticks with me the most is the work that went into the things I have.

Ben TrubeBack a few years ago, when I started blogging more regularly, I did a series of posts on how the technology I use every day gets assembled. I’m kind of a gadget freak. While I may not be an Apple junkie, I have several computers, tablets, eReaders, and am always interested in assessing the next piece of technology. And to be fair, I use most of this stuff for my work, be it the writing or my day job. But still, I’m able to sit here writing to you on a cheap laptop because the parts were assembled by someone making a dollar or two an hour.

Some of the tech jobs in low cost countries are a step up, but I feel that in many ways that’s just a way I can make myself feel better enough to ignore the issue completely. Even though I wrote about it for several months, and still care about how my stuff gets made, I stopped writing those posts when it became clear they weren’t getting read anymore. It’s not like I really changed my buying habits. There are no fair-trade computers as far as I know.

And I think sometimes about my job, and how it affects the world at large. I write software for data-centers. Data-centers are the backbone of the net, really of our culture. Everything that’s happening in today’s culture, from social media, to smart phones, to predictive marketing, is all made possible by the data-center (and in some very small part, me). There’s nothing inherently bad about the Internet, just a lot of the things we choose to do it. And admittedly a lot of the data being collected invades our privacy, tries to get us to spend money we don’t have, or just titillates us with the next bit of media or porn.

Nothing I do every day is directly harming the world, and yet in some way I am culpable (if slightly) for contributing to the world we are becoming.

When I was writing about these issues a few years ago, I found it hard to suggest tangible things for people to do about technology. This is one of those things I feel bad about from time to time, but really don’t feel motivated to much about. It would change so much about my life to put away technology (it is literally something I’ve been training for since Highschool and probably before that). It would be infinitely harder to thrive as an indie author without the net, and even this blog wouldn’t survive without being hosed somewhere.

So how am I as a Christian to act?

I think for starters I need to not ignore the work costs precipitated by the way our world does business. I need to be making conscious choices, and if something really goes against what I feel God is calling me to, I need to trust that he can provide. Right now I do feel called to working and writing about the technology center, but you have to be careful to not become to much of the culture in places like that. Fortunately my particular group of co-workers is all believers, so if we do have problems, it’s never hard to talk about them.

This is one of those things I’ll be figuring out for a while. And in the meantime I can at least help by not always buying the new, but figuring out ways to keep the old working (like *shiver* Linux).

Teach Thyself

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Rich talked this week about the Christian in School, which in this case refers less to institutions of higher learning, and more to the things we learn in everyday life. This can vary from actual skills and information we acquire through study, and it can refer to attitudes, perspectives and responses to people and ideas we learn by living in society. It’s as much about the TV we watch, the music we listen to, and the websites we visit, as it is about our particular efforts to study a subject.

python.sh-600x600Rich outlined the purpose of learning for the Christian as tying in with our church’s motto, becoming more like Christ all the time. The purpose of learning for the Christian is to be more like Jesus, and to be equipped to do his work in the world. This doesn’t necessarily negate learning skills for your particular calling, the world wouldn’t function if everyone became disciples, missionaries and pastors, but it does involve thinking about how the skills you acquire fit in with your life as a Christian as a whole.

Most programmers worth their salt are self-taught. Programming is as much a mindset and a way of thinking as it is knowing the specific technical details of a language. A programmer is about 90% high level ideas about algorithms, problem solving skills, and attitudes, and maybe about 10% specific technical knowledge. One part of the DNA of a lot of programmers, myself included, is this idea of acquiring skills or powers with programming. Writing code isn’t really a theoretical endeavor, it’s designed to do something. Whether it’s processing an ebook, grabbing information off the web, or creating graphics and fractals, code does something, and programmers like to learn how to do more things.

Inspired by an article I read on skimming websites to create specific topic driven books, I’ve been working on C++ code and Python scripts to skim websites, and analyze their structures. Sometimes this is for entertainment, serving up content from a bunch of different sources rather than having to go to each individual website. And sometimes it’s just so I can learn more about how good websites are put together (and even how search engines find everything online).

This activity in and of itself is largely morally neutral. I’m learning more, but I’m using this skill primarily to entertain myself, or just to learn more information. There’s nothing about this that’s making me particularly more like Christ.

Rich’s sermon got me thinking about this, and the ways I haven’t been making a deliberate effort to increase my skills as a Christian. So my solution? I wrote a Python script that skims some Christian devotional websites, and read the Bible in a year sites, and creates an ebook (using Calibre’s command-line interface) that can be e-mailed to my Kindle daily (using another Python script I found online) with new material for me to read and study. The last bit of automation will be setting up my Linux system to run this script at a scheduled time, so all I have to do is keep my Kindle connected to WiFi and I have God’s word, and the reflections of a lot of good Christians every day.

Whether or not this will result in my actually reading scripture more is up to me, but it does demonstrate that how we use skills is as or even more important than how we acquire them. I’m not saying that all of my programs have to make Christian-y things. But even programs like the fractal ones I write are designed to study and glorify a part of God’s creation, pure mathematics. And probably in the case of many programmers it’s using our knowledge and skill-sets in ways that are helpful, not harmful, and not always focused just on entertaining ourselves.

Who’s Afraid?

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When Rich talked about “The Christian … Afraid” I have to admit I didn’t think I was going to relate. I’m not one of those people who does around being afraid of what will happen to them. I’m even pretty chill about the state of the world. Sure, things are bad, but God is good. Things will get better. Life isn’t always like the last few weeks, or months, or years we’ve been having.

But I do experience fear in some tangible and more insidious ways.

I can obsessively think, worry, and work myself up about things in life that I think are going to be unpleasant.

Ben TrubeA good example of this is going to the dentist. Now no one likes going to the dentist. It’s not fun for all involved. And dentist appointments always seem to sneak up on me. I accuse my wife and the dentist office of scheduling me early, that it can’t possibly have been six months. In a perfect world I would find out about a dentist appointment the day before I had to go in, and not spend a week dreading slash obsessing about it. Ultimately happy gas helps some of the anxiety during, but it doesn’t do much for the week before.

I don’t really want to be this way. Going to the dentist is just a fact of life. And it’s not particularly scary. I just don’t do so well with pain in my head. I don’t mind extremity pain, like kicking a corner with my toe, but I can’t really get away from the inside of my mouth. And worry can be a real drag. It can put me in a funk and take the fun out of other things around me, during time when I shouldn’t be feeling so bad.

Ultimately I try to employ distraction as a strategy. Or I treat myself. Sure I’m going to do something unpleasant, but I get ice cream afterwards.

Man, I am such a kid sometimes.

Actually that’s the thing, in situations like this I’m really getting God the father. Not the disciplinarian father, but rather the father who tells their kid that everything is going to be okay, that there’s nothing to worry about. And there are better ways to spend one’s time than obsessing. Repetition and facing fears are good too, but a grounding in knowing God is there for you and knows what you’re going through can help you with fears for things you haven’t encountered before.

Now the trick is remembering that when you’re actually in the situation. As with all things, it’s probably easier to think of God in rough times, when you’re thinking of God and talking to God all of the time. It’s a relationship, and relationships can be very encouraging when you’re scared.