Category Archives: virtue

Letter 45: Cupcakes and Wide Phylactories

Yesterday was my wife’s birthday, and I took it upon myself to bake her birthday cupcakes.  I like to bake, and I have even begun to venture into the world of baking from scratch.  But that applies only to things I am quite familiar with, bread and cookies.  From long experience with packaged mixes, I know roughly what I want, and what to look for.  But cakes remain a terra incognita of sorts, and so I entrust myself to the wisdom and industrial science of Betty Crocker and Duncan Hines.

But it was not merely a boxed mix.  It appealed to our higher aspirations.  It contained special frosting mix and a genuine icing bag to use in frosting the cupcakes.  My efforts at laying on frosting have been less than successful, but armed with such tools and directions, I had hopes that I, too, could create a confection worthy of the finest bake shops.

My efforts yielded some perfectly ordinary cupcakes.  It took me until my fourth cupcake to apply the frosting so that it completely covered the cupcake with one go.  In the end, some did not get frosting at all, but I had my one cupcake to properly decorate and present to my wife replete with candles.  I was pretty pleased with how it turned out, because I wanted to do something nice for her.  Before I brought it in to her, I took a picture.

And therein lies the trouble.  I wanted to post the picture to Facebook, that repository of the odd effects of our lives.  So in part, my motivation for posting the photograph was to show how we were celebrating my wife’s birthday, sharing a bit of our loves with family and friends.  But I wanted something too.

At first, I was going to introduce the picture apologizing that it was not on par with the work of a cousin who is a professional baker.  That would shift the focus from celebrating my wife’s birthday to the cupcake.  Worse, it would make the present of the cupcake to be less than what it was.  No, I could not say that, so off those words went into the ether.

But I could not let go of the desire for people to admire my cupcake, and, by implication, me.  So I tried another tack, attempting to describe my labors as producing something worthy of my wife.  Again, this subtly shifted the focus.   “Please look at my cupcake, and sing my praises for making it.”  A voice cleared in my head.  This would not do.  The focus and the point must be about my wife.  So I simply wrote, “Happy Birthday Dear,” and left it at that.

All of this took little more than a minute in the privacy of my mind.  It seems somewhat contradictory sharing it here, as if trying to draw attention to my virtue.  But I do offer this because I really wanted people to tell me what a wonderful cupcake I had made.  It speaks of the vanity that is in us all, sometimes masquerading as a sense of emptiness that needs filling, and brings me to the point I want to make.

In Philippians 2:5-11, Paul tells us, “Let Christ himself be your example as to what your attitude should be. For he, who had always been God by nature, did not cling to his prerogatives as God’s equal, but stripped himself of all privilege by consenting to be a slave by nature and being born as mortal man. And, having become man, he humbled himself by living a life of utter obedience, even to the extent of dying, and the death he died was the death of a common criminal. That is why God has now lifted him so high, and has given him the name beyond all names, so that at the name of Jesus “every knee shall bow”, whether in Heaven or earth or under the earth. And that is why, in the end, “every tongue shall confess” that Jesus Christ” is the Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phillips, emphasis mine)

I’m wondering if that is what is meant by “carrying our cross.”  It wasn’t so much that Jesus suffered, though He certainly did.  It is more a sense of forgetting of self, not, as I often do, because of a sense of self-negation and an earnest desire for approval.  Rather, Jesus so thoroughly full of Himself, and understood Himself completely, that there was no need to pay attention to Himself in that way.  The usual ups and downs that so assail us in no way changed who He was.  Secure in that, He could, and did, do anything, and underwent the slings of outrageous fortune in no way changed the fact that Jesus was God, even if no one else chose to recognize Him as such.

As we close out the year, this episode brought to mind that I should work on cultivating that same sense of self-forgetfulness.  That no one will have to ask if the cupcake was good, because the focus is on the recipient, where it belongs.

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Letter 43: A Prayer for Election Day

Almighty God-

We acknowledge that you alone are sovereign, that all power and authority are yours.  You have established governments here on earth to better order our public lives by upholding justice.

You have blessed us with the opportunity to choose our governors.  Guide us to choose wisely, seeking to do justice, not just to ourselves, but also to others.  May we consider our neighbors, the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and those yet unborn.

Help us to see past the claims, to discern the truth about our circumstances and those who would see to lead us.  May we not be swayed by honeyed lips and silver tongues, speaking words we want to hear.

For our land struggles, the abundant riches You have given us.  Too often, we yearn for a King, a man on horseback to lead us, to solve our problems, to make us great.  We forsake You.

We pray, too, for those would will govern us.  Endow them with wisdom and courage to do justly, and to love mercy.  May they be humble, knowing the limits of their power.  May they seek to unite, for the public good.

Finally, we pray for each other, that we would see our fellow citizens as our fellows, and men and women made in your image, and dearly loved by you.  May we work together for the shalom of our city an our world, until such time as You come again and claim the kingdoms of the earth for thine own, that peace would reign in our streets, and want shall be no more.

Amen.

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Letter 38: Ripped from Today’s Headlines?

Last week I decided to start listening to an audio recording of St. Augustine’s The City of God.  I had read excerpts in college, and an abridged version while in law school.  Augustine was prompted to write The City of God by the sack of Rome by Alaric the Goth in AD 410.  He reflects on society, Roman history, the nature of Man, government, and of course the Christian’s true home.

I haven’t made it very far, but I was seized by the applicability of his comments on the Roman people.  He could have written those words today.  How easily we wish to be cosseted and amused.

I was also appreciative of a traditional liberal education, where I was able to read such things.  In our rush to a more job-focused, or culturally driven education, we often forget the value of ancient wisdom that has no direct benefit one’s chance of getting a job.  We seem to have forgotten that one of the original purposes of higher education was teaching us how to live.

“But the worshippers and admirers of these gods delight in imitating their scandalous iniquities, and are nowise concerned that the republic be less depraved and licentious. Only let it remain undefeated, they say, only let it flourish and abound in resources; let it be glorious by its victories, or still better, secure in peace; and what matters it to us? This is our concern, that every man be able to increase his wealth so as to supply his daily prodigalities, and so that the powerful may subject the weak for their own purposes. Let the poor court the rich for a living, and that under their protection they may enjoy a sluggish tranquillity; and let the rich abuse the poor as their dependants, to minister to their pride. Let the people applaud not those who protect their interests, but those who provide them with pleasure. Let no severe duty be commanded, no impurity forbidden. Let kings estimate their prosperity, not by the righteousness, but by the servility of their subjects. Let the provinces stand loyal to the kings, not as moral guides, but as lords of their possessions and purveyors of their pleasures; not with a hearty reverence, but a crooked and servile fear. Let the laws take cognizance rather of the injury done to another man’s property, than of that done to one’s own person. If a man be a nuisance to his neighbor, or injure his property, family, or person, let him be actionable; but in his own affairs let everyone with impunity do what he will in company with his own family, and with those who willingly join him. Let there be a plentiful supply of public prostitutes for every one who wishes to use them, but specially for those who are too poor to keep one for their private use. Let there be erected houses of the largest and most ornate description: in these let there be provided the most sumptuous banquets, where every one who pleases may, by day or night, play, drink, vomit,[1] dissipate. Let there be everywhere heard the rustling of dancers, the loud, immodest laughter of the theatre; let a succession of the most cruel and the most voluptuous pleasures maintain a perpetual excitement. If such happiness is distasteful to any, let him be branded as a public enemy; and if any attempt to modify or put an end to it let him be silenced, banished, put an end to.”

St. Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Book 2, Chapter 20

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Letter 36: For G, On Her Graduating High School

G-

Congratulations on graduating high school!  Your Auntie and I are very proud of you.  I hope that you are excited about the next chapter in your life.  We are.  As you enjoy this transition moment, permit me to offer some avuncular advice.  Some of it is advice I wish someone had given me when I stood where you are now.

You are about to embark upon a great adventure, and in a great city to boot.  This is a tremendous opportunity, and I would encourage you to take advantage of it.  Much as when you were a young child, this is a season of exploration, an opportunity to learn more about the world around you.  Take it in.  Relish the sights, and sounds and smells.

Try also to take advantage of the attractions of the city.  It’s not as easy to do as you would think.  Your studies will take up much of your time.  But do go out to see a show or a museum.  Sample some of the different foods on offer.  I’m sure your auntie will be more than happy to help.  And she knows the city.

But for all the new horizons to explore, do not be in a rush.  Take some time to reflect on what you are experiencing.  This is a time to ask questions.  The truth is, while you have been primed to master answers, you will do better to master questions, for those will in time yield the right answers.  Possessing answers without knowing the questions will only confuse you into believing that you know, when you don’t.

This is also a time for making mistakes. Don’t be afraid of them.  You are going to make them despite every effort to avoid them.  That said, don’t do anything knowingly stupid.

You will be meeting people from all over, with very different experiences from you.  Get to know some of these people.  Ask them questions.  I suspect that if you ask most college graduates, what they will remember fondly are the late nights spent talking with other students about the questions great and small.  Does Man have free will?  Was the Designated Hitter a good idea, or should pitchers bat?  Who makes the best pizza?  Long after you forget most of the things you’ve learned in class, you will remember those conversations.

It’s a shame really, that education has become about preparing you for work.  That is important, of course, but college is a really lousy way of accomplishing this.  You will learn most of what you need to do your job on the job.  Forty years ago, most jobs still only required a high school diploma, and many men and women achieved successful careers without one.

Education comes from the Latin root, e ducare, which means “to lead out of,” as in to lead an injured person out of harm’s way.  As applied, the phrase can be understood in two ways.  First, it is the process by which we are led out of ignorance.  This is really a lifelong endeavor, so it becomes important to understand how to learn, and how to apply what you’ve learned.

The other understanding is where I want to focus.  Education can also be the process of drawing out something within you.  I could be the statue that resides in the block of marble, or the book or painting that first hatches in the mind of the artist.  Seen in this way, education becomes the process of becoming more fully a person.  A good educator is able to see that “person” and will work to bring her out.  In time, we hopefully come to recognize ourselves and strive to become more consciously ourselves.

With that in mind, take the time to take classes in subjects that interest you or might help you become more yourself.  You have an opportunity to consult with experts that you may not have again.  Learn something about art, or music, philosophy or religion.  Or maybe it’s the social sciences that pique your interest, where you learn to better understand people.  Don’t try to channel all of your energies into one narrow range of topics.  Look to fill yourself out in knowledge and understanding.

I hope you will choose to share with us at least a glimpse of what you will be seeing and experiencing.  I took up writing when I went off to college, sharing with family and friends what I was doing, some of what I was learning, and some of what I was thinking.  I especially treasure the letters I received back from my grandparents, and the silly post-cards my father sent me.  I’ve saved all of them.  Now that my grandparents are dead, those letters are a piece of them that lives on.

But I have probably detained you long enough.  This is your day to celebrate, and these are just the prolix ponderings of your sentimental uncle who loves you and wishes you well.  Congratulations again on a job well done.  May you continue to blossom and flourish in this next chapter of your life.

o-HIGH-SCHOOL-GRADUATION-facebook

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Letter 31: Will You Be My Neighbor?

Good Samaritan

We are knee-deep in another Presidential election cycle. What has been interesting to me is the symbiotic division within the country. The one common denominator has been a sense of fear and anger. We are apparently looking for bogeymen on whom to blame our troubles, and to whom to send our bills. Candidates right and left are more than willing to offer such solutions, and they have the fore.

The Right makes all sorts of angry statements looking to shut our borders, restrict trade, and roll back some social developments of the past twenty years. The Left pooh-poohs this, and derides the Right as ignorant and bigoted and a menace to society, unlike their virtuous selves. This fuels the fear and anger on the right, and the cycle goes on, and on, and on, and on, ad nausam.

What disturbs me most about this rhetoric is the demonization of the “other.” They are stupid, and unworthy of attention or regard. We need not give them any attention or consideration, as their opinions and beliefs are unreasonable, and in fact, pose a threat to our well-being. So we demonize.

Such dismissal of anything contrary to our views promotes stridency, and it also relieves us of the obligation to ask questions. Why does someone believe what they do? Can we even attempt to understand them? Do we realize that these men and women are our neighbors?

That is one of the challenges of following Christ, coming to see others as our neighbors, even if we can agree on nothing.

Kantian ethics, of all things, offers some useful questions to ask ourselves. First, are the rights we are requesting ones we would afford our enemies? Conversely, are the rights of others we wish to restrict ones we would be willing to give up, too? These aren’t perfect questions, but they make a good start.

Will you be my neighbor?

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Letter 22: How Would Jesus Drive

Chesterton once observed that, “The only Christian doctrine for which there is empirical evidence is that of original sin.” One needed only to pick up the newspaper and read. Of course, these days, very few people actually read a physical newspaper, but you can readily substitute television or news-feeds. Or, you can simply go for a drive during rush hour.

Over the years I have heard a number of discussions on Christianity, all attempting to answer the question, “What would Jesus drive?” That is not my concern. My question is much more practical and relevant: “How would Jesus drive?”

Driving to work last week, I was reminded of a passage from Ezekiel:

The Lord God says to you, My flock: I am going to judge between one sheep and another, between the rams and male goats. Isn’t it enough for you to feed on the good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of the pasture with your feet? Or isn’t it enough that you drink the clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet? Yet My flock has to feed on what your feet have trampled, and drink what your feet have muddied. Ezekiel 34:17-19 (HCSB)

Do you see rush hour traffic in this description?

I could offer an answer to the question I posed, but I think it better to leave you to answer it.

“Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: Behold, I, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you push with side and shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad, I will rescue my flock; they shall no longer be a prey.” Ezekiel 34:20-22a (ESV)china-traffic_2356349b

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Letter 21: A Strong Corrective

One of the biggest challenges I face is reading the “Alumni News” section of my alma mater’s magazine for parents and alumni. I experience both envy and regret. Envy, as I see others’ success trumpeted from the pages, and regret, that my own life has fallen short. I believe I should be far more successful and important than I am.

My entirely sensible wife wrinkles her nose at this. How am I defining success? Is it an accurate definition? Why do I believe this?

Since I was quite young, I was told that I was exceptional, and that I held the promise of great things. I had talent and intelligence. Even my peers, who were not inclined to treat me well, believed this. In those dark moments when I smarted from rejection, I clung to the notion that one day, one sweet day, I would be a huge success, and those who teased me or humiliated me would be forced to acknowledge just how great and important I was. Seeing these thoughts in print reminds me of how small and shabby they are.

Why do I believe this, and is it true?

It might do to attribute this to others, but the fact is I do believe it, and have made the thoughts my own. Could it be a defense mechanism, to give sense to my disappointments? An escape from the mundane? Or is it really just a subtle manifestation of the flesh within me?

I possess abilities, but then so do many people, and ability is no guarantor of success however you measure it. Am I superior to my fellow man? No. So why should I succeed? What does God wish me to be?

There is the question, isn’t it? What does success look like to God?

If I’m honest, God doesn’t care much about what job title possess, or how far I advance. He is far more concerned with developing my character and how well I’m doing in working to advance His kingdom. That isn’t to say that God has no interest what I do professionally. He clearly desires His people to apply themselves diligently, making the most of the time. We are told to do everything as unto the Lord, after all.

Still, it hurts, reading the headlines, and wonder why I can’t be like them?

Two passages of Scripture come to mind: John 21:20-22 and Philippians 2:5-11:

But Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved, following…. When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, Lord, what about this man? Jesus said to him, If I want him to stay (survive, live) until I come, what is that to you? [What concern is it of yours?] You follow Me! John 21:20-22 (Ampl.)

Let Christ himself be your example as to what your attitude should be. For he, who had always been God by nature, did not cling to his prerogatives as God’s equal, but stripped himself of all privilege by consenting to be a slave by nature and being born as mortal man. And, having become man, he humbled himself by living a life of utter obedience, even to the extent of dying, and the death he died was the death of a common criminal. That is why God has now lifted him so high, and has given him the name beyond all names, so that at the name of Jesus “every knee shall bow”, whether in Heaven or earth or under the earth. And that is why, in the end, “every tongue shall confess” that Jesus Christ” is the Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Phil. 2:5-11 (Phillips)

These passages are not easy reading. I am not sure if it’s something inherent in human nature to want to compare ourselves to others and get ahead, or pressure from living in America, but the green-eyed monster exacts a terrible toll. It can never be satisfied, for there is always yet another success, just beyond our grasp, or having obtained more of one thing, we now want more of something else. Satan can ask for little better to distract us, a perpetual motion machine of discontent.

“Let Christ himself be your example….” This issue was, in large part, what His temptation in the wilderness was all about. Each time Satan confronted Him, it was to offer Christ a chance to prove to one and all that he was the Messiah. Only Christ didn’t take the bait.

He passed on the idea of loudly announcing Himself such that everyone would accept His identity. Shockingly, He felt not need to impress upon us His importance. Indeed, He was so settled in His identity that no job was beneath His dignity. He could afford to don silly disguises, or act in undignified ways, or waste His talents even, because they could in no way diminish Him.

As for my desire to be better than my peers, “What is that to you?” Jesus strove to direct Peter’s attention away from others, and himself. Peter had his task before him, to “feed My sheep.” That, and that alone, could serve as the measure of Peter– was he faithful and diligent in fulfilling his task.

Note too, that Peter’s value was not connected with how well he carried out Jesus’ instructions. Jesus declared Peter valuable before He charged Peter with his mission. His value was independent of his performance. To the nervous pulling of our egos, Jesus gives the stern call, “Follow Me.”

The call is to redirect our focus, away from ourselves, and away from others, to rest solely on Him. Instead of asking, “Am I important?” or “Am I meeting my potential?” we should be asking “How closely am I following Jesus? What is He asking me to do?”Jeep_Follow_Me

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