Friday, August 31, 2012

Part of Wisdom is Humility: Sirach 7:4-5

Today I want to reflect briefly on verses that I was inspired to explore by the pace that I almost always seem to end up running when I out with a certain set of friends. The pace, a relatively quick one (at least for what is labeled as a "long, slow distance run")--7:45 per mile. The verses are from Sirach (from the Apocrypha) chapter 7, verses 4 and 5.

What are these verses:
Do not seek from God authority or from the king a place of honor.
Do not parade your righteousness before the LORD, and before the king do not flaunt your wisdom.
The two verses provide four simple reminders against pride.

In some ways, it is good for me to tie these to the fact that I run a little more quickly than maybe I should some weeks.  Some may wonder--in fact, sometimes even I wonder--whether I am doing it for pride.  Am I running at that pace to show how I can keep up with others?  Am I running at that pace to show that I am as good as or better than others?  Or, am I running that pace just because it is the pace at which I feel comfortable running with friends while I am not out to prove anything?  Am I running at a pace to show that what God has given me is somehow better than others or am I running at a pace that celebrates what God has given me along with recognizing what others have, wherever each person might believe their abilities come from.  I know what the preferred answer is and I try to live that out.  And f course, pride is not only about running.  

Teaching Sunday school?  I have no preconception that I know my religion better than most or am more faithful to God or an more perfect religiously than others.  I am simply a person who is willing to share my time and my effort with the children of my parish so that we all can learn something.

Playing in the worship band?   I have no illusions that I am a great musician.  Again, just someone who enjoys playing.  I enjoy sharing my gift so that others may connect with God in a way that they find useful.  

My career success?  I won't deny that there have been times when I have let pride in.  I won't say that I should not value my accomplishments.  But at the end of the day, I work very hard not to let it go to my head as pride.  I am an imperfect colleague and mentor in so many ways.  And my career should be about using my gifts to help others (through public health in general, through the products of my research, through my teaching and advising) by sharing ideas and allowing others to give them consideration rather than by imposing my will on others.

My time in the kitchen?  Doesn't make me better than anyone else.  My family needs food.  I have shared kitchen work with my wife and kids.  I have taught my kids.  But it doesn't make me any better than anyone else.  Again, I can value and share the fact that I love to bake without pride that makes me an unbearable person to deal with.  (At least I hope so.)

My place in my family as a father and husband?  Again, I have to recognize that is it not about my pride.  I try to behave in ways that show that family is not about me only.  I know that intellectually.  It is easy enough to write.  Acting that way is not always easy.  

The two verses thus provide me with reminders of the importance of humility and the downfalls of pride for having positive relationships with others.  Reminders that I should attempt to use my success to build up and encourage others rather than make others feel  uncomfortable or put off.  It never ceases to amaze me how much wisdom we can find in the ancient texts.  How that wisdom still applies today.  And how I can connect to it through my running and other aspects of my day to day life in ways that I never appreciated sitting through mass and CCD as a kid.  

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Poetry and Necessity of Algebra

Yesterday, I talked about the poetry of numbers.  Seeing numbers in patterns.  Finding a rhythm in numbers.  Seeing sometimes symbolic meanings in the numbers themselves.  And concluding that this (perhaps) fanciful interpretation of numbers opened interpretation to a poetry of numbers.  This was motivated by a discussion I had with a student.

Today, I am thinking about the poetry of algebra.  This was brought on by listening to The Diane Rehm show, which yesterday included an hour long segment on "Is Algebra Necessary?" a discussion driven by an opinion piece in the New York Times about a month ago.

I listened with interest while working.  It seemed to be an argument mostly about whether requiring algebra created such a stumbling block that some students would fail out and never be able to develop their real talent versus how algebra could help with reasoning.  Afterwards, I read the original opinion piece in The New York Times, and in some ways I don't think that the guests were nearly as far apart as they were portrayed through the program yesterday.

At it's root, everyone seems to agree that adults need some mathematical reasoning and logic skills.  The questions are what level, how to train for them, when to train for them, whether learning how to perform algebraic manipulations at a high level helps people ro learn broader problem solving skills, and whether there are other ways to develop problem solving/logical inference skills.  The requirement that nearly everyone learn algebra (and at an increasingly early age) seems to presume a particular set of answers to these questions that (as the author of the opinion piece points out) is not necessarily proven by existing evidence.

As I think about the debate, I know that I benefitted from algebra (for more reasons than just that I can now help my 16 year old as he takes much of the same math that I once had) because (1) it set the foundation for calculus which was integral to my training for my academic career and (2) it did help me to expand my reasoning skills.  However, I am willing to consider the possibility that my anecdotal evidence is not necessarily representative of the experience of the average person and that more data than my experience is needed.

Regardless of where we go with the debate, I would like to make a brief argument for where I see the poetry in algebra.  When I think of algebra I think of turning a long-winded word problem into an elegant mathematical expression in which they symbols and numbers are used in ways that represent things that go beyond linguistic.  They represent relationships that are not always obvious and that require discovery.  The "Aha" moment that comes from solving a mathematical reasoning problem is like the insight that I sometimes feel from sorting out the beauty of a poem or the insight from figuring out the spiritual meaning of a verse from the Bible.

Here is some simple algebra but an example of where algebra does what I described above.  Suppose a nuclear family is preparing to send its oldest child to college.  Up to this point, only one parent has been working.  The working parent has an annual take home pay of $45,000 and the family has managed to save $2,000 per year.  The family expects college to cost $20,000 per year.  If the other parent goes to work, the family anticipates that this parent will lose approximately 25% of their wages to taxes.  What before tax salary would the parente returning to work have to earn so that the family would not go into debt?  This can be written as :
$2,000 + (1 - 0.25) x = $20,000

The problem can then be solved for x (which, in this case equals $24,000).  I see this as poetry because I can take a whole set of ideas and boil it down to something so simple.  Some of the best poems do that.  And I see the beauty in being able to say, "Now I have an answer and I understand why."

Does this mean that I ever needed quadratic equations?  For this particular example, no.  Does this mean that I needed to do all the graphing I learned how to do?  For this particular example, again, no. But this does mean that having the skills to reason out the relationships between numbers and the algebraic toolkit to set up and solve and equation is useful for me in specific situations.

Does this require algebra the way it is currently taught in most schools--almost certainly not.  If I recall correctly, the word problems were usually the end part of the learning after endless drills of pages of solving for unknowns.  Why not make it much simpler?  Teach the kids--here is the type of problem you are likely to encounter as an adult--or even make it more relevant to them as a kid.  We could talk about saving for a new iPad, summer jobs, and savings accounts for example. Then, after they see how the logic and symbols can be used to transform a paragraph long word problem (the linguistic side) into a single line equation that can be solved after a few basic arithmetic operations and manipulations, have the practice the manipulations a bit.

I bet we can think creatively about how to teach most kids how to use mathematical reasoning in their lives with some algebraic concepts without requiring standard Algebra I.  We must continue to look outside the box we have drawn for ourselves to date.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Poetry of Numbers

Yesterday, I met some of my new advisees for this academic year.  One of them, in her application materials had mentioned her focus on numbers.  As she pointed out in conversation with me, it should not seem like a surprise that a health economics student would have a focus on numbers.  And, I would have to agree, but (nor surprisingly), I think there is something more.  

I think that there are some economists who focus much more on the models rather than on the numbers or the intuition rather than the numbers.  And there are plenty of people who have no interest in economics who think about numbers all the time.  Who notice numbers.  Who take an interest in numbers.  Who see the numbers all around them (in patterns and find a rhythm) and think about the meaning of numbers.  So, I'm not saying that I question my new advisee's conclusion that a love of numbers in a health economics student should not be a surprise. I'm just (as I often do) thinking a little more broadly and trying to (to use a buzz-phrase) think outside the box a bit.

I almost think about it as the "poetry of numbers".  I used the phrase casually in conversation yesterday and then took some time to ponder it.  Then, I decided to look up a definition of poetry.  I went to the website for a definition.  Here is a quote from the "What is Poetry?" page of that website telling us that poetry:
is an art form in which human language is used for its aesthetic qualities in addition to, or instead of, its notional and semantic content. It consists largely of oral or literary works in which language is used in a manner that is felt by its user and audience to differ from ordinary prose.
How can we relate this to numbers when it talks about language and semantic content?  I think it is actually quite straightforward if we continue to think outside the box a bit.  My graduate school advisor, Dr. Catherine McLaughlin, when we spoke about foreign language requirements for degrees would suggest (and this is a paraphrase rather than a verbatim quote) that there was an implicit rather than explicit foreign language requirement in the economics program at Michigan.  The requirement was to know math, and "speaking math" was like a foreign language.  Now, "speaking math" involves a lot of symbolic representation and logic as well as numbers, but it certainly involves a lot of numbers.  I think that the poetry of numbers comes from noticing them all around us and thinking about the patterns and rhythm of numbers, thinking about the meaning, thinking about the symbolism.

Some people just see numbers as a means to an end.  Others, or at least I, see numbers as something that in and of themselves have meaning.  I'm not talking about numerology.  I'm just saying that I enjoy thinking about numbers all the time and thinking about what each means to me.

Learning about numbers can involve a rhythm.  At the school my children have attended (at least through eighth grade for the oldest), they use rhythms to learn multiplication.  Marching and stamping out the beat and emphasizing when a multiple of the number in question is reached.  "One, two, THREE, four, five SIX, seven, eight, NINE."  There, is not simple prose.  There is an artistic and symbolic beauty to that.  

I can even relate it to my spirituality.  There are many numbers in the Bible that have all sorts of meaning.  Forty days of rain for Noah and forty days in the desert for Jesus.  Coincidence that those should be the same?  Twelve apostles.  Forgiveness not seven but seven times seventy-seven time (Matthew 18).  There are plenty of times when seven is used in the Bible.  Other numbers that I think of immediately from stories in the Bible like five loaves and two fish to feed 5,000 men. Numbers were all around.  Numbers that make it easy to remember stories and to reconnect to stories.

And what started my numbers and spirituality connection in my blogging...a pattern of numbers.  A bib number that read "1313", that I read as "thirteen thirteen".  The many times I have looked for something in the pattern of numbers I see in my running and my life.  My latest (although I have not written about it yet) being what seems to be an inevitable pace to achieve despite all attempts to slow it down when I run with several of my running friends...7:45 per mile.  How will I interpret that?  What meaning will I find?  In "prose" it is a time--seven minutes, forty-five seconds.  In that case, we just read it and don't think any more about it.  But in poetry, it could take on a meaning of its own and have symbolism.  As I think about where I would find a spiritual meaning, for the few Biblical books that have 45 verses in a single chapter it could be read as one verse--Chapter 7 verse 45.  However, if I play with it and ask what it might symbolize, it could be 74:5 (perhaps from a Psalm).  Alternatively, it could be 7:4-5.  In fact, I will write about Chapter 7 verses 4 and 5 from the Book of Sirach--specific to the Catholic Bible--about humility).   

So, the pattern comes from my life.  The pattern can even be thought of as a rhythm--especially when it comes to running.  The repetition of the same time--almost like a mantra.  The rhythm of feet running a 7:45 mile is much different than the rhythm of feet running a 6:05 mile or a 9:05 mile.  The meaning touches my soul.  Patterns, rhythms, meaning and symbolism.  Isn't that poetry?  The poetry of numbers is a reality for me in my running and spiritual lives. To make reference to the title of my old blog, the poetry of numbers is something that helps to provide a context for part of my physical and spiritual well-being.  

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

One Day Tattoo Data, Another Day Medicare: Digging a Little Deeper into What we Hear on the Radio

The other day, my entry focused on where some data on tattoos in the United States had actually come from.  While I heard about it on a public radio program that cited the Centers for Disease Control, I found after a little digging that the data actually came from an interactive online poll.  I raised the issue because of the potential for varying levels of methodological rigor between something actually produced by the CDC and other sources.

Now, I don't usually go into political issues too much on this blog.  But, yesterday, I was listening to another public radio program, that I usually trust to be relatively fair to both sides of an issue, The Diane Rehm Show.  However, there was one emailed question that the host read whose presumptions went unchallenged that really surprised me.  If you are interested, you can go to the website, find the August 27 program, and listed to minute 17 and 18 of the program on the preview of the Republican National Convention.  The listener wanted to know why she (who described herself as just under 55) should, under the plan proposed by Vice Presidential Candidate Paul Ryan, continue to pay Medicare taxes to fund coverage for those already over 65 while she would get something different when she turned 65.  The listener considered it a rip off.  The guest who answered the question gave a very careful answer and described it as (I'm paraphrasing rather than transcribing) the perceived short end of the stick.  But the guest who commented didn't challenge the basic assumption that it is a rip off.

I will be the first to agree that what VP Candidate Ryan's budget proposals for Medicare have included is a definite change for those of us under 65 at the moment.  However, I think that calling it a rip off is (a) a bit harsh and (b) ignoring the fact that it is a viable alternative and that we need some alternative to the current system if we are going to offer any sort of health care funding for everyone in the older adult population of the future.  Medicare in the future cannot possibly be the same as Medicare today without costing taxpayers much more per person than it ever has before or requiring a much higher premium payment by recipients or both.  Neither of those would necessarily be affordable or politically palatable.

The listener, to her credit, did seem to understand that the taxes now, in no way, are used to save up and pay for future benefits.  In other words, my taxes now don't pay my benefits of the future.  This has always been the case.  We refer to Medicare as a "pay as you go" system.

However, the listener who posed the emailed question may have presumed that their own taxes now were a guarantee for their benefits in the future.  This is an incorrect presumption.  Social contracts between generations can change over time.  When Medicare was institute it was a new public social contract.  We have become used to Medicare.  Despite the many changes in Medicare over the past three decades there are some constants that people are used to.  One, as the guest on the radio program accurately described it, is that Medicare has been a defined benefit program (like a traditional pension).  The plan proposed by Paul Ryan would make it a define contribution plan--in other words each person would be given a predetermined amount that would allow that person to buy at least the two least expensive private plans.  This is more like today's 401k plans.  There are some risks involved. I'm not sure that the risks are any greater than what we face without some more changes in Medicare.

I want to reiterate, I say this is not necessarily a rip off because we don't really know what it compares to.  We do know some things about the projected continued changes in Medicare under President Obama's reforms.  There has been much debate about the exact nature of the impact.  The key is that any attempt to save money is going to have some type of impact on access to care.  The optimistic viewpoint is that it will not be an adverse impact and that waste will be controlled.  Not everyone shares the optimistic point of view.

So ultimately, I believe it is not a question of whether we change the social contract and whether those in the future will have less generous coverage.  I believe it is a question of how we change the social contract and how much coverage we can still afford to give seniors in the future.  We've seen this coming for years.  I know that many people in my generation have presumed nothing about what we would get from Social Security or Medicare some day.  I would hope that the debate would be framed as one over how best to preserve some amount of intergenerational social contract to provide for financial access to medical care in old age with a rational discussion about the merits of different alternatives.

I've picked on the side of the argument that is generally perceived as left leaning.  I have the capacity to do that because I listen to that side more.  I'm certainly not saying that either side is without fault in the debate.  I am simply using one example and suggesting that our news coverage should do its best to point out the facts and to make clear the choices and not to leave the presumption that we will (or even should necessarily) be able to continue with the current method of funding benefits for older adults in the future unchallenged and described as a rip off to future generations.  A rip off to future generations would be the complete removal of an intergenerational social contract if there were truly no way to afford it at all.  

Monday, August 27, 2012

Short Thought on John 6:60-69

Yesterday's Gospel reading in the Catholic church was John 6:60-69.  It is a reading that we have heard many times over again.  People complain about how hard it is to follow the way that Jesus outlined.  Then the text tells us, "As a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.

Even today it is not simple.  Some might say that in today's world it is even more difficult.  There are so many distractions from the way that Jesus outlined that it is even harder to follow than two thousand years ago.  More ways for a person to occupy his time and think less about others.  More ways for a person to spend his money and think less about sharing his  resources with others in a charitable way.  More ways for a person to seek to be happy instantly rather than looking over the long haul.

It seems like part of human nature to be selfish--but a part that I am being asked to overcome.  It is part of human nature to seek things sooner rather than later--but a part that I can control.  

The key to walk in the way of the Lord is to find a way to make sure that I don't lose sight.  I may get distracted.  I may take a wrong turn here or there.  I even may end up on the wrong path for a while.  But if I keep in mind what God has set as the way to live for all who follow in Jesus's path and I use that as my guide every day, I will find my fulfillment.  It is a theme I have reflected on before--giving my whole self to the purpose of my spiritual identity.  It is something I am sure I will reflect on again.  Fr. Lou (yesterday's celebrant) was neither the first nor the last celebrant whom I will hear use the phrase about walking in the way of the Lord.  But his use of it did help to make crystal clear in a simple way what the point of yesterday's reading was and gave me something to reflect on.   

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Centers for Disease Control and Tattoos

So, yesterday, I posted about tattoos.  Focusing on one public radio program (The Take Away) and one segment of one morning program.  The blog entry wandered a bit but all came down to the interesting fact that the proportion of American adults with tattoos has noticeably increased (as documented by some data) and how I like to think of my own tattoos as "permanent vision boards".

I also commented that at least one family member was interested in why the Centers for Disease Control (or the CDC) had anything to say about tattoos.  I gave an answer in yesterday's blog but have since actually dug around a bit to find the reference that was cited in the radio spot.

What I found when I searched "CDC  tattoos 21 percent" was that there was a recent report in the publication Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.   The report was not particularly about the proportion of individuals with tattoos.  That was simply a number in the first paragraph of the report that was not an official CDC statistic but a citation to other work done by Harris polling.  The work was an online survey (which may or may not be representative of the population at large).  The work, while I'm sure high quality because polling businesses don't stay in business if they do shoddy work, may not be at the same level of technical sophistication and unbiasedness as most CDC work.  However, given that it is cited in a CDC publication in something written by the CDC suggests that they place a great deal of credibility on the data.  I actually am somewhat surprised that there does not appear to be a standard CDC survey (perhaps something like Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System--that looks at health behaviors that are associated with health risks on an annual basis) that asks about tattoos.

The main point of the MMWR article was to report on a number of cases of skin infections in four states.  The infections appear to be the results of the practice of manufacturing tattoo ink and not any practice used by the tattoo artists.  But that is why the CDC also recommends going to professional tattoo artists.  And, of course, consumers should do a little background work to find out as best they can whether the artists are using best practices in hygiene and best practices in available materials.

Some press, as with most things in the world, picked up the news from the CDC publication and sensationalized it.  An example said "New Secret Dangers of Tattoos: CDC Reports Mass Infections..."  Well, the dangers are not secret.  Tattoo artists require a waiver to be signed acknowledging risks.  And there are strict care instructions afterwards--also to minimize risk.  It is a big decision.  It is one that should be made with full information.  But the full information that is out there provides plenty of data already about what the risks are.  The CDC report sait it was difficult to determine the exact incidence of infection, but the count for the "Mass Infections" in the online title was...22!  Given the number of people with one or more tattoos and how quickly it is growing, I think that 22 infections is an importan figure to understand but not something to cause alarm as "mass infections."

Finally, for anyone interested, here is a link to report released by Harris Interactive in February of this year--not exactly new news.  There were some interesting statistics in the results.  According to the results the portion of the country with the lowest prevalence of tattoos is the south.  A higher proportion of women respondents have them than men.  A higher proportion of Democrats than Republicans.  The statistics (about who has them. what those who have them think, and what adults in general or people without tattoos think of those who do) go on and anyone interested can see for themselves.

I think that the one other statistic I'd like to comment on is that 25 percent of those who don't have tattoos think that those who do are less spiritual.  This is fascinating to me as for me it was such a spiritual decision.  And I realize that my own case is an anecdote and not representative data, but I know lots of people for whom there is a very deep spiritual meaning to what they have.  (And others for whom this is not true.)  But I don't really think that there is much reason to think of a different in spirituality, intelligence, health, or any number of other things that were perceived as being very different based on the study results.  Again, the study may not be a perfect representation of American opinion, but it points to some interesting trends and trends in perceptions that I suspect will go away over time.  

Saturday, August 25, 2012

So Many Tattoos...

The public radio program "The Take Away" yesterday had a story entitled "America's Growing Love for Tattoos."  The Centers for Disease Control had released new data showing that the self-reported prevalence of tattoos among adults had risen from 16 perent in 2003 to 21 percent in the most recent data.  The program's speculation on why included the fact that there are more and more people who are visible to the public who have tattoos that are also visible to the public.  The had a tattoo artist who they interviewed--she provided some interesting insight although I think that my tatto artist, Emily Sloman (whose gallery is here), could have given a better interview.  They also spoke with someone who talked about people in Congress who have them.  I have not tried to figure out how many academics have them, but that might be an interesting idea to try to estimate.

One of my family members asked why would the CDC be interested?  Probably because tattoos were historically seen as a risk factor.  Perhaps a risk factor for infection--although if the tattoos are done right that risk is actually quite minimal.  Perhaps they were seen as associated with other behaviors--like things that "bikers" were historically associated with doing.  There may be some other reason.  I'm not sure what having a tattoo has ever been found to be associated with epidemiologically.  Earlier in my career I actually wrote a paper about tattoo removal (ironic given my relatively newly inked status now).

The discussion talked about how tattoos have become main stream.  Perhaps as our culture begins to see more than simple ear piercing and other forms of body changes as acceptable tattoos just come along with that.  I certainly have no problem with permanent body modification--which is what tattooing is after all.  And I won't be able to tell my kids, "Don't do that."

One of the hosts told a story about his tattoo.  He mentioned how he had thought of it as a silly thing for quite some time but that since the friend he got it with suffered an early death, it now serves as a permanent and daily reminder of his friend.  That is cool.  Every tattoo seems to have a story.

I am increasingly seeing mine as a permanent vision board.  I first heard about vision boards around a year and some ago when Metta Wellness had an afternoon to share vision boards.  I didn't participate but I considered it.  Vision boards are an interesting concept--taking a space and putting images of things that you love or that matter to you or that you aspire to.  Obviously, it's best if something fits in all three of those categories and then you can use it to pinpoint where you hope to go.  There are lots of things that a tattoo can be of.  My one (so far) tells a story of things that matter a lot.  If I ever get another I'll probably do the same.  I don't expect to use tattoos any other way, personally.

It makes me think of Pinterest.  Different people use the "pins" different amounts. I've simply used mine to organize a few things that are relevant to me.  Each person using each tool in life has their own way of using it and their own vision for it.

Probably if we asked 100 people with tattoos we'd get a wide variety of stories about why and what each meant.  It is just a form of self-expression.  It is a form that should be thought about seriously (as any form of self-expression) and should be considered thoughtfully before making a decision.  And it is one that is apparently becoming increasingly popular in the United States.  It will be interesting to see if that trend continues.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Chocolate Hazelnut Banana Bread & Well-Being (It's not just the taste)

Last night I posted a picture of the Chocolate Hazelnut Banana Bread that I had made yesterday morning and that my family (along with my sixteen year old's girlfriend) was having for dessert.  A friend (who had previously shared with me her mom's Irish Soda Bread recipe) asked for the recipe, so here it is and it is not that hard.  The cooking takes an hour or just over.  The cooling takes some time.  But the actual prep can be done in less than 15 minutes (and probably as little as ten) after a few tries.

Chocolate Hazelnut Banana Bread

4 ripe bananas, smashed
1 cup sugar
1 cup chopped hazelnuts (this is the easiest way to find them where I shop)
1/3 cup melted butter
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon baking soda
Pinch of salt
1/4 cup cocoa
1 1/4 cups of all-purpose flour

Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C).  Mash the bananas.  Add sugar and mix.  Add nuts, butter and the egg.  Mix.  Add vanilla and baking soda.  Mix.  Add remaining ingredients.  Mix till all flour is incorporated.  (As my seven year old likes to say, don't leave any flour "pockets".)  Pour mixture into a buttered 4x8 inch loaf pan (or a well seasoned stone loaf pan without butter). Bake for 1 hour to 1 hour 5 minutes. Cool on a rack. Remove from pan and slice to serve.

So, why is a recipe like this relevant to my blog about nourishing the soul.  Well, it was certainly nourishing to those who ate it in a physical sense.  (Yes, it is a bit of a sweet treat but with the bananas and nuts its not all bad.)  But for me it was also nourishing to my soul.  The reason is that it was part of making two recipes before I went to work yesterday--I also made rolls that went along with the entree for dinner as we served store bought ravioli and sauce, added fresh tomato and pepper to the sauce, and had homemade rolls alongside.  I love to bake bread.  And I love to share what I bake.

And when we have my whole family at the table (although the seven year old slept through dinner last night), we have fun conversation.  And when we welcome my sixteen year old's girlfriend she seems at ease with and has fun with the conversation too.  

The feeling of creating--especially when it is borrowing from someone else's recipe but adding my own twist.  The feeling of sharing.  The feeling of family.  The feeling of being at ease with family and anyone who joins my family for dinner.  All are good.

It may help that we live in a house with no TV in the dining room or even on the same level of the house as the dining room.  It gives us a chance (when we do actually sit down) to focus on each other.  We are sometimes distracted by reading the news or the mail.  But last night it was just such a nice time to sit and have conversation.  Also funny that it should come less than a week after our return from Colonial Williamsburg where they may have had more chores after dinner but they certainly had no TV or internet to distract them and I'm sure had to learn to have conversations as well.

There is a sense of wholeness that comes from having a family sit together.  There is a sense of wholeness that comes from good conversation long into the evening.  Can't do that every night with the pressures of my job and other activities that I, my wife, and my kids have.  But to do it at least once in a while really helps to emphasize what drives well-being--good food, good family, good friends, good conversation.  In a home that focuses on the good and blessings of God.  

Thursday, August 23, 2012


Does doing something good balance something not so good?  That is an interesting question.  We could ponder that about people's reputations.  We could ponder that with respect to personal spiritual lives.  We could ponder that with respect to what needs to be done to achieve eternal salvation.  I avoid the word debate, because I'm not sure there is much to debate when it comes to numbers two and three on the list above.  Those either are or are not.  Each person has a set of beliefs.  Each religion/philosophy has a set of teachings.  They may differ.  They are what they are.

What is interesting to think about, however, is whether doing something good with respect to your health and fitness can offset something not so good.  Does all my running allow me to not worry about eating eggs or using salt?  Does all my running give me the opportunity to order the largest caramel mocha latte I can find?  Does all my running offset the fact that I spend most of my day at work sitting at a desk when it comes to other health risks?

I like to think that the answer is yes in all cases.  The last time I had my blood pressure taken it was pretty low.  The last time I had my cholesterol measured it was pretty low.  My weight in comparison with my height puts me right in the middle of the so-called "normal" range based on BMI.

However, when all is said and done, despite all the exercise I do and calories I burn there is more to health.  Do I get enough sleep?  Even if I can afford more cholesterol is that a good thing?  Even if I know I am sweating out salts, is taking in more a good thing (I used to be like a "teetotaler" when it came to salt but am not any more--although I am still cautious.)  And most of all, since my day is dominated by my job and even when I bring work home it mostly involves sitting at a computer, how does that all add up?

Well, what caught my attention today was a piece in the Wall Street Journal.  In this piece, the author is being taught how to make the workplace healthier.  One of his colleagues is told that even his triathlon training is now enough to avoid the perils of sitting at work.  What is interesting to me would be to dig a little deeper.  I'm not sure that this implies that the person who trains for triathlons but also sits for eight hours a day at work has the same risk as someone who is physically unfit and also sits all day at work.  Or, if instead, what this means is that the change in risk that occurs from sitting at work is just the same for the triathlete as for anyone else.  It is just that the triathlete should (in theory) start out with a lower risk--at least when it comes to cardiac disease.  I think that the correct interpretation would be the latter.

So, what does that say about tradeoffs?  It says that one can offset the other.  Where would the overall risk end up?  That is an empirical question.  Certainly I think that my running lowers my risk of cardiac disease and my sitting at my desk increases it.  The key--and this is where it ties back into spirituality for me--is that I can't let down my guard if I want to maximize my health and minimize my risk.  And in the same way, I think that spiritual fulfillment ultimately requires that I don't let down my guard and that I give my full focus to my spiritual life just as much as I give my full focus to my physical well being.

Neither is an easy task.  Both can lead to a more complete sense of well-being.   

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


Some days I realize that getting fitter is not really all that complicated.  To quote Nike, you "just do it."

Does that make it easy?  No.

Does that me any more motivated?  Not really.

What it does is point a clear way.  I can think up all the complicated interval workouts on the track that I want.  I can plan ahead for the next nine months until the Boston marathon next year (and I do have a spread sheet that provides a vague plan for me for that whole time).  I can think about how to cross train--after all I have borrowed a book called run less, run faster which emphasizes quality over quantity of workouts and stresses cross training.  I can come up with split times for every mile when I race.

But at the end of the day, it doesn't require that much logic.  And it is not so much a matter of faith (going back to Fr. Sam's comment at church that our beliefs go beyond logic).

Instead it is a matter of one thing--determination.  I may still need to run smart.  But smart doesn't require all that much fancy planning.  Determined is--go out and keep going. Smart is--don't start too hard so I have something at the end but if I have too much then that's not so good either.  Those two together are mostly intuitive.  Really just simplicity.

So my thought for today after a refreshing 45 minutes on an exercise bike going 12.88 miles where I just pushed and pushed is to "Run Determined--Run Smart".  (A friend recently told me that I run with my head as well as my heart.  That comment may be a little more poetic than mine but it all comes down to the same thing.)  With that, we'll see how I do in my 5K and 20 mile races in the next two weeks.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

My Running "Family"--Thank you Back on My Feet

Yesterday, I announced to Team Christopher's Place (Team CP to those of us who are in it) that I would be handing over my coaching responsibilities to one of the other community volunteer runners in the group.  The announcement was simple.  I trust that the next co-coach (the other co-coach I'd worked with since last December is staying on) will help the team at least as much as I did.  Many people thanked me for my service.  And even after more than a year involved with the group, I am still meeting new people--both new people who come to run with Team CP and members of other teams whom I meet in Back on My Feet city level events or when they come for track workouts.

While my team thanked me, I really should have thanked them.  So, this is my public "Thank you."  Thank you for bright and cheerful 5:30 AM circle ups?  Thanks for trusting me for the last nine months.  Thanks for running with me.  Thanks for sharing your running growth with me.  From Jeanne who ran Boston and did her best half-marathon this year.  To Kani who is the "king of encouragement" most mornings (I've never told him that directly) and who made it to a five mile run. To George who has done a half marathon and who always admired my food posts on Facebook.  To Arnell who proudly shared with me the news of his first eight mile run while I was on vacation; I know he'll be ready for the half marathon in the Baltimore Running Festival in October.  Thanks also for the many stories about pets and studies and jobs and where we all came from.  To Jerome who started out unsure of himself but who has come into his own as a very fast runner who I don't expect to ever come in ahead of again.

Why am I stepping down as co-coach?  I still believe in the good that Back on My Feet does.  I will still stay involved.  I'll still be there as often as I can.  But I have so many things to balance right now that something had to give a little.  My immediate family at home will appreciate this.  Especially as we enter another school year and I continue to drive my high schooler to school nearly every day.  Not going to run with Back on My Feet quite as often in the mornings will ease the morning tensions a bit.

I titled the post my running "family" as I see the people I run with a lot more than I see anyone I'm related to by blood or marriage other than the people I live with.  And, I am blessed to have "two sides" of my running family.  The one side is Back on My Feet.  The other side comes from several training seasons of Charm City Run.  I see some members of that group more regularly as we still like to train together when we can.  I'll see a bunch of them at the 20 mile race in twelve days.  And I did join them for one evening track workout this summer.

Occasionally the "two sides" or my running family cross--at morning track workouts.  The workouts are dominated by people I know from Back on My Feet and some I know from Johns Hopkins.  Sometimes my Charm City Run companions will come out as well.  For track workouts--the more the merrier.

As I continue to run--for my own fitness, to achieve goals, as an opportunity to help my 7 and 13 year olds realize what they can do, for part of my socialization, for part of my volunteering, and for part of just a chance to see other people reach for and achieve their goals--I have to think about how to integrate the two sides of my family, with my own need for occasional solitude, with the needs of my immediate family.  Of course, the last (my immediate family) comes first.

As long as I let my conscience lead me it should work itself out.  And I count myself blessed to have so many wonderful opportunities for my immediate family and my running family that I have to choose how to balance them rather than having to ask "where is the good in my life?"  For that, I thank God every day.  

Monday, August 20, 2012

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Yesterday, my family was back in Baltimore for mass and we had the priest we most often get to listen to--Fr. Sam.  The homily was typical Fr. Sam.  Energetic.  Challenging.  Many topics.  Of all the topics, I think I can focus on one--and just one.  That logic alone is never going to be enough to understand the way of living proposed by God and proclaimed by Jesus Christ when he was here on Earth.  Fr. Sam repeatedly related it to the young boy who at the beginning of the church's Sunday readings on the bread of life concept had offered his five loaves and two fishes when thousands of people needed to be fed.  Yesterday's Old Testament reading (Proverbs 9:1-6) and letter (Ephesians 5:15-20) both focus on living with wisdom.  Not with foolishness.  And wisdom goes way beyond logic.  Even keeping that simple message from yesterday with me as I move forward is a good message to take.

We also had great music yesterday.  And, Fr. Sam complemented the many decisions that our parish had made in the past decade including leadership not by a priest but by a pastoral life director and the music that we play--many of the same words as the "old hymns" but with new ways of singing them and playing.  Neither of those steps was necessarily driven by logic but by faith that in continuing to follow God we can find new ways to understand, new ways to relate, new ways to implement to continue to bring the word of God and the actions that should follow to those who come to worship at St. Pius X.   

Sunday, August 19, 2012

A Little Up and A Little Down

Yesterday was a day of ups and downs. I won't go so far as to quote Dickens, "It was the best of times.  It was the worst of times."  Because yesterday was really at neither extreme.  Just a bit of good and bad.  I'll highlight two very good.  I'll highlight one negative--but even the negative had a positive about it.

The best positive--our house is still not the cleanest, neatest house.  It will never likely be.  But yesterday we got our acts together enough as a family to clean up enough so that all five of us could sit at the dinner table.  Not just be home at the same time for dinner--which we often are.  But to actually sit together.  We had done that a lot while on vacation--both in the condo and out.  But is was so nice to be able to do it on our own house.  It is one of those things that (to use a cliche) makes a house a home.

The second positive--my run yesterday morning.  I realized that my slow long distance runs over the summer were not for lack of training.  I may or may not get a personal best in the race in two weeks.  But if I don't it is not for lack of trying or lack of readiness.  Yesterday's 15 mile run was the fastest pace I'd run anywhere near that distance since the Baltimore 10 Miler on Father's Dat weekend.  The runs I had done the rest of the summer seem to have been a function of three things--running alone (which I am capable of doing but just is not the same as running with a group), not getting to the NCR trail (which, while some call it boring, it a welcome relief from hills), and having run in much warmer weather the rest of the summer.  Yesterday's run was wonderful.

The negative--after avoiding getting hit by a backing pickup in one part of the grocery store parking lot, I hit a car while trying to pull into a parking space.  Foolish--yes.  Costly in terms of future premiums, etc.  Probably.  But, it forced me to think about why it happened (not getting myself together enough after avoiding something bad to really concentrate on the next big task) and to see that some people in the world are still pretty good people.  I wrote a note and left it on the windshield of the other car, but also went to see if the owner of the parked car was in the store.  She was and when I began with a profuse apology she began with "these things happen".  Unhappy--yes.  But she took it in stride and was very forgiving.  That seems like a rare quality these days.  Even in an unhappy moment, there was a moment of grace.

Two of out three positive is not a bad day.  I just hope that the next negative can be a little simpler but just as graceful.  

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Everything Works Together--Sometimes

There is a verse in Paul's letter to the Romans (8:28) that in the Catholic translation of the Bible reads:

"We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose."

Sometimes I feel that this is absolutely the way things are.  Sometimes I feel like I could only wish that this was the case--although I ultimately trust that everything is working for the good even if I can't see it that way at a moment in time.

Over the days since I last wrote (having missed mass last weekend), I have had a very nice time with my family.  Every moment very nice--no.  Most moments very nice--yes.  Happy to hear at least two children say, "This trip to Colonial Williamsburg was better than I expected."  Of course, for one of them that was mostly because he had a chance to see canons and muskets being loaded and shot--but we have so start somewhere.

At work things have moved along even while I have been on vacation.  Nothing major negative although one thing that I have to stretch to see as a positive.  I will call it a learning experience--particularly when it comes to working across the multiple parts of the university at which I am employed.  

What else--running has been nice this week.  Neither great nor terrible.  Just solid.  And sometimes, that is really all I can ask for, and what I should count myself lucky to have.

Time with family has also involved food--a lot of it this week.  Good food at fun places in Williamsburg.  Today--on the last full day of vacation--we'll go Greek for dinner at the request of my 13 year old.  My 7 year old has indicated that he would rather stay at the condo and bake with me for Christmas vacation than go skiing.  It would save us a ton of money if he did that, but we'll see.  It would be great for bonding with him if he did.

The other thing about vacation is thinking back to when I learned about American history.  I honestly had forgotten that it was the House of Burgesses in Virginia.  A lot of what impressed the kids  on this trip was the making of stuff and doing of stuff.  That certainly impressed me.  I have a much better appreciation for skilled craftsmanship now that I realize what I have difficulty doing than when I was a kid and thought, "Why couldn't anybody do that?"  

The other thing that I really have an appreciation for (particularly after having seen the even longer term history in Armenia while there) is the history of Virginia and the United States. The amount of history that occurred on the Duke of Gloucester Street.  The number of people who were fundamental to the birth of our country who were there.  The number of people who were patriots who helped to embody what our country stands for and what our country can be, has been, and will hopefully continue to be who stood in some of the same buildings I stood in.  As a first grader at the time of the bicentennial, I think that gives me a special appreciation for all this that dates back to my childhood.  I don't think my kids have that and I'm not sure how I could get that to them.  But as I heard some of the stories that were told this week, chills went up and down my spine.  

Proud to be in America.  Proud to be an American.  Proud to be able to civilly debate what all that means.  And proud to be able to put it all in the context of my own beliefs and philosophy.  

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Too Much Reliance on Technology, A Missed Mass, and A Question About My Tattoo

One lesson my boys learned today--don't always rely on technology.  We are on vacation in a city we've never been to before.  We tried to find Food Lion today to go grocery shopping (we are staying in a condo unit and prepare quite a bit of food for ourselves during the week) and we found one--but not the one that had originally been recommended to us.  How?  Relying on the maps app on my iPhone.  Now, we did benefit from finding an outlet mall and seeing nearly every business along the main strip in town, but we went a little out of our way compared with what we'd planned.  Then later we tried to go to mass.  First, we went to the old St. Bede's rather than the new one.  Then, we looked for the new one and missed it.  We relied a bit too much on the mapping technology when having an actual hard copy map and looking up where we were going in a phone book may have saved the day in both cases.

Since we missed the mass, we had a chance to make a slightly more elaborate dinner.  You can see what my 16 year old and I made together here.  He cooked the pork.  I chopped the pepper and carrot my from 12 year old's garden.  My 16 year old stir-fried the veggies and I added some parmesan.  The potato salad was store bought.  As we worked together and my 7 year old set the table and we all sat at the table together for dinner, I felt a sense of renewal.  We often eat together but with one person or another always getting up to get something.  This was a true sit down together dinner.  And the joy of cooking even extends to vacation.  It is a nice and inexpensive way to eat to save money to use on other things during vacation.

The missed mass led me to look up the readings.  I've been reading over the readings outside of mass anyway lately.  That doesn't make me better than anyone else.  It simply reflects my efforts to integrate my faith into the rest of my life.  It doesn't even mean I understand it any better than anyone else.  All it really means is that I take a bit more time to ponder about it and write about it.  It certainly doesn't mean that I have all the answers.  In fact, more often than not reading things over and over again means that I have more questions.

Still, when I read over today's readings, the Gospel is a continuation of the theme of Jesus as the bread of life whose sacrifice gives us the opportunity to have eternal life.  But what I find more interesting to observe this week is the first reading.  Interesting for two reasons.  First, it is a story of Elijah--1 Kings 19:4-8.  In this story, Elijah prays for death but interacts with an angel to prepare for a trip to Horeb. Elijah was given a hearth cake.  According to one website it is a cross between a cake and a biscuit.  Interesting--and another type of bread.  We now have (in the last three weeks) rolls, manna, and hearth cakes.

The other interesting thing is that after Elijah ate twice he walked for forty days and forty nights.  I never plan to walk or run that far.  I never plan to walk or run even 40 miles--26.2 is enough for me, thank you.  Although if we were in the metric system the marathon distance is not too much over 40 km.  So, it is, once again, a way in which God reaches out and speaks to me.  Even the 19:4-8 made me think of running.  As I have set a goal of breaking 20 minutes again in a 5K and 19:48 wouldn't be a bad thing to run.

Finally, I mentioned my tattoo in the title of this entry.  Someone asked about my tattoo today and commented favorably on it.  He said, as several others have, that I'll likely get more as they are addicting.  This gentleman indicated that he had 13 and that each tells a story.  My first tells a story.  I had a fledgling idea for a second that will also tell a story.  And it will begin with multiple breads.  Not necessarily the three breads from Bible stories of the past three weeks but definitely varieties of breads.  Once again, God communicating to me (although I am never sure exactly what is being said) in ways that are relevant and meaningful and touch my mind and spirit.  

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

My Thoughts on "I am the Bread of Life"

In the reading from the Gospel of John from the Sunday just passed (6:24-35), the last verse is one that is very well known, "I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst."  

What does that mean?

As I ponder it, I come to one conclusion.  Despite my love of physical bread and writing about physical bread last week and this week, it has nothing to do with physical bread and physical drink.

It has to do with hungering and thirsting for my true self.  My true self will come out if I come to Jesus.

My true self implies something about my priorities.

My true self implies something about what I should care about.

My true self implies something about how I should organize my life.

My true self is freedom within the context of following Jesus.

So, when I think of Jesus as the bread of life, I think of placing all my faith, all my trust, and the way that I try (key word here is try) to lead my life in the way that he would want me to.  

That doesn't mean that I can't have goals and dreams and desires that are mostly for me--take my running.  But it also means that even my running can be approached in a way that represents following Jesus.  Using it as a basis for spiritual pondering.  Using it as a way to reach out to others.  Using it as a way to show love.  Using it as a way to celebrate God's gifts to me.  

One way to think of summarizing this is that it means setting expectations in a way that is consistent with what Jesus would want.  Not what society would promote.  And if I set my expectations based on what Jesus would want and I reach those expectations then my soul will be satisfied even if it is not what society wants.  So much of whether we hunger and thirst (and more generally yearn) has to do with how we frame things.  Just in the past week, I heard a story on the radio about how bronze medalists are actually happier with the outcome than silver medalists.  Why, despite the fact that the silver medal is a higher place. Silver medalists tend to frame their experience as "not quite getting gold".  In contrast, bronze medalists tend to frame their experience as "at least I got a medal".  So, being satisfied with what a life centered on Jesus suggests (and demands) rather than what society does has so much to do with how I frame the question of my happiness.

Jesus being the bread of life means that I think about how to structure my existence and my growth (thinking of yeast-based breads and not just flat breads) in line with Jesus which sets my expectations which determines whether I will hunger and thirst.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Simplicity of John 6:24-35

The gospel reading from Sunday just past, John 6:24-35 has a lot of complex stuff in it.  Like--what does it mean that Jesus is the Bread of Life.  I'm not sure I have the answer, but I'll ponder that question tomorrow in my blog entry.  Tonight, there is just one verse from the larger reading on which I choose to focus--verse 29.  Although, I suppose to be fair, I have to include verse 28 as well--as verse 29 is a direct answer to verse 28.

In verse 28, the people ask Jesus, "What can we do to accomplish the works of God?"  In verse 29, immediately following, Jesus give the simplest of answers, "This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent.”

It could not get much simpler than that.  Of course, there is a critical difference between simple and easy.  It can be simple--like a child believing through a simple matter of trust (and I discussed the faith of a child with respect to last week's reading when Jesus fed thousands with the five loaves and two fish that he took from the young boy).  But being simple doesn't mean it's easy.  Taking off and putting away the things that lead to having an old self, and not a true self is simple but not easy.  Putting on the new self is simple but not easy.  Putting on the true self is not easy.  It makes us vulnerable but it makes us true and whole.  Believing in the one sent by God is a real challenge.  But if that is all there is then I know what to do and I know what I will be judged on.  

And I know that once I believe, everything else will follow.  How to treat family.  How to treat students.  How to treat friends.  How to treat neighbors.  Even how to treat enemies.  We are all children of God created in God's image.  And when I stop to remember that I have that in common with everyone around me that suggests a lot about how I should treat everyone.  If I believe in Christ--the one God sent--and I live my life as if I believe in this then I will act justly and fairly and respectfully to everyone and everything else should just fall into place.  In the same way that I feel God communicates with me just so when I need it, I think that when I follow God, everything else just sort of works itself out.  

Perhaps someday that will not be the case.  But for now, I'll take my chances and make the best of believing in the one God sent and going where that leads me.  To perform the works of God while I am here on this earth.  That will lead to true happiness.

It amazes me how few people see the simplicity here and choose to follow it.  We should be proclaiming the glory of God and the simplicity of the direction that has been given to us by Jesus himself.  Praise the Lord!

Monday, August 6, 2012

More of Paul's Letter to the Ephesians

Yesterday's second reading in the Catholic church included the following lines from Paul's letter to the Ephesians:

"that you should put away the old self of your former way of life...
...and be renewed in the spirit of your minds,
and put on the new self,
created in God's way in righteousness and holiness of truth."

Father Ray pointed out some interesting things about this reading.  First, I'm not quoting verbatim here, but he sort of described Paul as writing the first "self improvement" book.  He talked about the number of books that can be bought and how much money we all pay to read about ways to improve ourselves.  We must be hungering for something.  I'm not different from everyone else in that respect.  I wouldn't need to "nourish the soul" if I were not hungering for something.  And as yesterday's post showed, I also need to nourish the body and even write about that process sometimes.  The part of Paul's letter that we listened to yesterday (4:17, 20-24) was clearly about how to become something new.  

Father Ray also made sure to point out the language of the reading.  It is not about getting rid of one's old self.  It is not about removing one's  old self.  It is not about destroying one's  old self.  It is about putting away one's old self.  Of course, putting away one's old self and "putting on" one's new self implies that we can take the new self off and pull the old self out of the closet.  As I sit here and write, I see that it really all comes back to the Serenity Prayer once again.  I need to have the courage to change the things that I can.  It doesn't mean that things will change right away.  It doesn't mean that I will break any old bad habit the first time I try.  There may even be a series of (to be cliche) one step forward-two steps back issues along the way.  

The key is simply that I have to realize that change is a willful act.  That I can pray all I want for help from God but that without some of my own willpower, some of my own direction, some of my own hope and faith, I will never change.  And it is only as I change that my true self will come out.  Father Ray didn't joke about it as if it were a Dr. Seuss book, but I can imagine, "Take off the old self, Put on the new self, New self--true self, That is the real self, Keep it off the shelf, Keep it on, Keep it on, At dusk and at dawn, Through prayer and thanksgiving, As long as you are living, Be new, Be true, Be you!"  

Themes from the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time

My reflections on themes today come from a different starting point than last week's reflections. I wrote several entries about last week's readings. I probably wrote more about one Sunday's readings than I have in a long time. This week, I have been home from Armenia for a week. I have played music. I have baked. I have run a lot. I have taught a lot. I could not ask for much more out of my personal life, and family is doing well too.

And this week, the worship band in which I play was not playing so I could focus all my thoughts on the readings. Or almost all my thoughts--sometimes it is hard with a seven year old.

The biggest thing to notice in the readings this week was the continued discussion of the theme that Jesus is the bread of life. I will comment on that and on Father Ray's homily a bit more later this week. What I want to comment on now is the idea of manna in Exodus.

Why?  Well, last week the type of bread discussed was barley loaves.  This week the type of physical bread (as opposed to symbolic bread with Jesus being the Bread of Life) that was discussed was manna.  The story of Exodus in which the Israelites have gotten annoyed with Moses for taking them out of slavery in Egypt that seemed to have its physical advantages and leading them to the desert to die.  Then God gave them manna.  I actually had to look up the word hoarfrost that appears in the reading.

Why is the variation in types of physical bread interesting?  Because in the past week I'd baked pizza, rolls, pizza again, then banana bread and bagels starting just after 6 AM on the morning when I heard the reading about the manna.

I guess what caught my attention most was the coincidence of the fact that I had made two types of bread on the same morning that the readings discussed two types of bread (one physical and one spiritual) and the way in which God continues to find ways to guide my behavior and give me hope by matching what I am doing with what I am hearing and reading so that what I am hearing and reading makes more sense.

Of course, I suppose it only makes sense when I "connect the dots" in the interesting ways that I choose to, but that is part of how I make sense of the world.  I realize that my way of connecting the dots may not always make sense to others, but, even when it doesn't, perhaps others might find it interesting to ponder and then try to connect the dots in their own way. 

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Ephesians 4:1-6--Last Thoughts on the 17th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Since tomorrow is Sunday again, I figure it is about time to bring my blogging about last Sunday's readings to a close.  So, I will comment on the second reading--from the letter of Paul to the Ephesians, Chapter 4 verses 1-6.  Recall, that these readings for me were not only in the context of having heard a reading about multiplying of loaves in the first reading, but they were in the context of being back in the US for less than 24 hours and in the context of playing bass for the first time in a couple of weeks.

The reading starts out, with Paul urging us "to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received".  Of course, I immediately thought of the how blessed I was to be able to play and to be playing at mass that day.  I have begun to appreciate playing more and more since I came back to it a year ago and focus on playing and becoming a better musician rather than someone who just tries to be a singing musician.  My call is to play bass.  And run.  And bake.  And many other things.  But in the context of the readings last Sunday morning it was about bass and baking bread.

Then, much of the rest of the brief reading said,

"striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace:
one body and one Spirit,
as you were also called to the one hope of your call;
one Lord, one faith, one baptism;
one God and Father of all"

As I listened, I heard the word "one" over and over. It was interesting to hear the word one repeatedly as a lot of what I heard in the rest of the the readings made me think about repetition and the importance of repetition in learning lessons.  

The lesson from the second reading was the repetition of one.  The repetition of the ideas about one of something.  One of lots of things.  And what one means.  One body.  on spirit,  One hope.  On Lord.  One faith.  One baptism. One God.  A call for something singular.  A call for unity.  A call for a unifying theme among those with whom we live.  A call for a unifying theme for my life.

I don't often feel like I have a unifying theme as I cram so much in.  But I suppose when all is said and done the unifying theme is to live in a way that shows that I appreciate the gifts I've been given, that avoids wasting the gifts I've been given, that uses the gifts I've been given to bring glory to God, and that shows that I live as close to the way that Christ would want me to as possible.  

Praise God for the nourishment of my soul.  

Friday, August 3, 2012

Third Thought About John 6:1-15

When I heard the readings last Sunday I knew that I would use most of my entries in my blog for the coming week to talk about about them.  And, here we are on Friday and I'm still writing about them.  Of course, part of that is because I haven't blogged every day.  But part is because of how moving the readings were.  Today is my third thought motivated by John 6:1-15.

First was, wow, God has an amazing way of nourishing my soul.

Second was the importance of repetition of themes and seeing how the repetition related to other things in life.

Today, I'll just touch on one of the parts of the story--that Philip was doubting.  There are many stories of doubt in the Bible.  Even the phrase "doubting Thomas" is based on one apostle after the resurrection.  The story of doubt in John 6:1-15 was when Philip commented on the economics of feeding the crowd.  He was very doubtful and noted more than a half year's wages would not be enough.

Then, Simon Peter (from whom I took my confirmation name--God speaking to me again), noted that a boy had five loaves and two fish. While it is not easy to tell exactly how Jesus got the loaves and fish from the boy, the key is that he did and that the boy (for whom the food likely was incredibly precious) gave up his food, trusted in Jesus, and had great faith.  The simple faith and trust of a child.

Sometimes that type of faith and trust is the best there is. That type of faith is amazing.It is a reminder to me moving forward to bring the gifts that I have to the table, to share them with the Lord and with others, and to trust that it will be enough to satisfy what God wants me to do.

Praisde God.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Doing and Seeing Things Over and Over

So, I mentioned the other day in my previous blog that the story of Elisha being presented with 20 loaves reminded me of several New Testament stories.  In fact, Fr. Sam commented on the fact that the story of needing to feed a multitude with limited resources was repeated three times in the Old Testament and numerous times in the New Testament.  He pointed out that there were always five elements of the story: (1) a holy man was presented with a crowd that was hungry; (2) someone brought him a small amount of food; (3) someone doubted that it would be sufficient; (4) the people were fed; (5) there were leftovers.

The fact that this theme was repeated multiple times reminds me of the entry in my last blog last week about the repetition and the lyrical quality of the story of Noah in the book of Genesis when I read it closely.  What is most interesting to me about that is that it is similar to interpretations of the story of creation that I have read and even the original story of creation.  Where it is always a matter of "and on this day, God did X."  Also, when you think about it the repetition of themes is actually a standard oart of fairy tales. Take Goldilocks and the Three Bears as an example.  Over and over again she did something she should not have and found that two of the three options she sampled were a problem.  Or the three little pigs.  It didn't have to be two pigs who messed up and built their houses of materials that would not withstand the test of time, but repeating the message twice helps kids learn the moral.

So, if you think about it, the fact that the holy writings of the Bible reflect the same theme over an over is sort of like a God saying to us, "Hey, did you get the memo.  If I told you once, I told you a thousand times--when people are in need of nourishment I can handle it."

And when it comes to my physical self, the connecting is that running is all about repetition.  Stride by stride.  Or on the track, half-mile by half-mile.  Sometimes just trying to hold a time.  Sometimes trying to improve a time.  But the key is that I have to be ready for and welcome repetition to enjoy training in general and track workouts specifically.  Running and training for running are all about repetition. Things that cannot be changed but that I can adapt to.

Of course, when it comes to nourishment there are even more stories than simply the holy man faced with a large crowd.

So, when all is said, and done, looking at the stories from the Bible on Sunday and thinking of how they relate to what I was pondering last week and the notion of story telling in general, it is interesting to connect the dots.  We as people need to be reminded that God can do anything. We are limited--although we are limited only by our faith in the end.  With greater faith--and taking time to "get the message" from the memos God tries to send us through the Bible, we can be better agents of change in the direction of God's will in this world.  And given how moved I feel by the words in Scripture this past Sunday and the clear linkages to other recent themes, the more amazed I am at how God communicates with me, helps me to connect the dots, and helps me to nourish my soul.

Tomorrow and Saturday, I'll comment on the relative faith of different stakeholders in the Gospel of John story and then on the letter from Paul.  By that time it will be Sunday again and time to think anew about connecting dots and nourishing my soul with my own observations and the interaction with the many amazing souls around me.