Sep 2, 2018

Always review your Amazon Subscribe & Save Subscriptions

We mostly drink home-made lattes. So finding a good deal on espresso is important in our house. Amazon absolutely outdoes local retail. So for quite some time I had a coffee subscription with them.

Today I got an email with a price alert:
The new price for four bricks of Lavazza was supposed to be $20.89 (after 5% discount). The price has increased from $17.20 since my last delivery. Now with inflation I found a price increase acceptable but still wanted to double-check if I got the best deal available. So I looked the item up and a one-time purchase was $19.29 and a subscription $19.66.

I sent this dilemma to Amazon Customer Service with two questions:
Why is my subscription more expensive than a new subscription?
Why is the subscription more expensive than a one-time purchase?

I received a prompt reply but it is even more disturbing: “In this case, you can cancel this subscription and resubscribe at lower rate.”
I did and now I got it at $18.31. All of a sudden the subscription was cheaper than the one-time purchase. So a little negotiating saved me roughly 10%. No big deal, you may say whether I pay $18 or $20 for my coffee. But please keep in mind: Amazon has 310 million active customers. If every subscriber is overcharged 10% it becomes a big deal really quick. Lesson learned: Always review your Amazon Subscribe & Save Subscriptions.

Aug 23, 2018

The Mindset List: Class of 2022

At the beginning of every school I go looking for the new edition of the Mindset List. The list was initiated in the early days of the internet and has been a popular component of back-to-school talks, faculty orientations and sermons for two decades.

This year the following items caught my special attention:

“Among their classmates could be Madonna’s son Rocco, Will Smith’s daughter Willow, or David Bowie and Iman’s daughter Alexandria.”
– That makes me feel really old! I mean seriously, the Fresh Prince is old enough to have a college-aged daughter. Ouch!

1. They are the first class born in the new millennium, escaping the dreaded label of “Millennial,” though their new designation—iGen, GenZ, etc. — has not yet been agreed upon by them.
– Labels! Isn’t interesting how we find it comforting to put everybody in a tiny little well-defined box? How do you talk about yourself? How do you talk about others?

3. They have always been able to refer to Wikipedia.
– Truth! What is wisdom and where do you find knowledge? Yes, Wikipedia has done a great deal of making solid information available to the masses. But where do you find solid education and profound critical thinking these days?

9. Same-sex couples have always found marital bliss in the Netherlands.
– LBGT! Let that sink in. This generation has never known a world where marriage equality was not a reality. It is not new, it is not radical but a proven reality for 18 years.

14. They’ve grown up with stories about where their grandparents were on 11/22/63 and where their parents were on 9/11.
– Shared trauma! Every generation has its shared trauma. This one brings home what generation you belong to. Our common pain is what defines us.

18. The Tower of Pisa has always had a prop to keep it leaning.
– Resilience! The tower of Pisa has been leaning forever. But for this entire past generation it just could not hold its own weight anymore and needed to be propped up. Every person’s perennial wounds are like that. We may need pain management, crutches, anti-depressants, anything, to keep us going. And that’s okay.

34. Starbucks has always served venti Caffè Lattes in Beijing’s Forbidden City.
– Openness! I must admit, this one convicted me of closed-mindedness. I still have this image in my head of China being a protectionist totalitarian regime. The mental image of coffee in the Forbidden City opens my mind. This generation has only seen an opening culture in China for their entire lives. Let me learn from them how to see goodness.

42. Mass market books have always been available exclusively as Ebooks.
– Newness! I love my Kindle but for me it still feels like a recent thing. College freshmen grew up on Ebooks. It takes time to adjust to a new normal. The Mindset List is a powerful tool to bring awareness to what has been normal for an entire generation. Is surely changes my perception and I hope it changes yours.

Aug 18, 2018

Rules rule according to Ignatius

I’m oddly attracted to Ignatian discipline and Catholic tradition. Since my dad went to a Catholic boarding school you could say I am reliving my father’s cloister days. I thrive in highly structured environments. I like rules and Ignatius of Loyola is the Master of rules. He wrote his “Spiritual Exercises” in 1522-1524. That was a pivotal in his life. He had just converted to Christianity and had not received any formal education yet. At the time Ignatius had a raw, uneducated faith. His soul and spiritual was full of passion but still raw material. He was longing for clear guidance and reliable boundaries.

On the 161 pages of the Exercises the word “rules” appears a whooping 121 times. Along the way Ignatius provides prayer schedules, rigid examens and a best of the Bible. His program is designed for thirty days. It is supposed to be a full-time engagement. Most people are not able to take a whole month off to reexamine their lives. That’s why Ignatius was gracious enough to write a rule providing an exception to the rule for busy people. According to the Nineteenth Annotation, “A person of education or ability who is taken up with public affairs or suitable business, may take an hour and a half daily to exercise himself.”

You should give this traditional spiritual exercise a try. Examining yourself, praying, discerning, relating to the Gospel, those are all helpful things to gain some perspective.

Jul 18, 2018

In the Louvre and in the Image of God

We just came back from a two-week trip to Europe full of family celebrations with birthday parties and a wedding. Also we took a two-day trip to Paris. Please keep in mind that Paris is as far from my German hometown as Dallas is from Houston, it’s really not a big deal. I have been to Paris multiple times before but this trip was the first time for me to actually go to the top of the Eiffel Tower and inside the Louvre Museum.

The Louvre is huge. It houses 35,000 pieces of art on 652,000 sq ft. But most people just come for one painting: The Mona Lisa. The Louvre has giant wall paintings, hundreds of sq ft big, telling entire dramas of human history. The world’s greatest artists are represented. The halls are lined with billions and billions of dollars worth of the finest art. But for one reason or another, the biggest crowds are drawn to that one room where you have to elbow your way to the farthest wall just to catch a brief glimpse of this letter size painting of a young woman looking at you.

That’s all the Mona Lisa is: a young woman looking at you. But that’s also where her magic comes from. Depending on how you look at her, she will look back at you. Some say she looks friendly, some say she looks mad. Art is in the eye of the beholder. Humankind has known that since the beginning: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:26-27)

You are a different piece of art, unlike the Mona Lisa. God is the artist who created you. Mona Lisa will just look back at you the way you look at her. What goes around comes around. The invitation from God is a different one: See yourself as the image of God. That way you cannot discard yourself. That way you cannot bow before any idols, because you are created in the image of God. You are wearing God’s face on your face. You are God’s beloved creation. Your image is worth more than the all the artwork of the Louvre combined. Pick up a mirror, look at yourself, and behold the image of God.

Jul 9, 2018

Spiritual Summer Reading

For the summer everybody has book recommendations for you. I am no different. Every few years I re-read a true classic. And you know when I am talking “classic” I really mean “ancient”. St. Augustine finished his “Confessions” around the year 400 CE. Augustine of Hippo is probably the most influential teacher of the Church. In this autobiographical work he describes his journey into Christianity. The conversion story part is a pretty easy read. The book is long, consisting of 13 books itself. And I don’t read it fast. Sometimes I may lay it down for a week and think about how Augustine’s life is similar to mine. I invite you to start reading now and take your time. Then at the end of the summer let’s get together and share how Augustine’s spiritual journey has impacted yours. The Spiritual Summer Reading wrap-up session will be on Sunday, August 26, at 9am at St. John’s UCC in Rosenberg, Texas.

You can get The Confessions of Saint Augustine for free at Project Gutenberg. But honestly that 19th century translation is not very approachable. Barnes & Noble has an edition in their Classics Series for under $10. And of course you can always find it on the e-reader of your choice.

As you read and travel this summer, don’t forget to take a look at your inner being: “And men go abroad to admire the heights of mountains, the mighty waves of the sea, the broad tides of rivers, the compass of the ocean, and the circuits of the stars, yet pass over the mystery of themselves without a thought.” (Augustine’s Confessions, Book 10).

Jul 3, 2018

When in the Course of Human Events

“When in the Course of Human Events” is that most popular opening phrase of the Declaration of Independence. Usually I have skipped over them coming to the good stuff about liberty and America. This year these few words caught my special attention.

The first word of the Declaration of Independence is “When”. It is not a theoretical, moral declaration but one that happens in a particular time and place. “When” is a temporal clause not a conditional one. It does not say “If in the Course of Human Events”. “When” means the present turmoils are something that is part of life. Major breakups, separating from your family of origin, leaving the old behind is something that regularly and normally occurs in the course of human events. Abuse happens, the reaction happens. Freedom needs to happen. Revolution needs to happen. That’s just how life is.

These words are part of the “Course of Human Events”. This declaration is not divinely inspired. It is a human document. People were hurt by people and react in human fashion: They express their pain, they state their case and they follow through. That’s what humans do. Action causes reaction. That’s just how life is.

This year the opening phrase of the Declaration of Independence reminds me that life goes on. This human, messed up life, just as it is.

Over the past few years I have reflected on this important document in other contexts:
2017 Brexit 1776? – Happy Independence Day!
2016 A decent respect to the opinions of mankind
2015 Obergefell v. Hodges
2014 Don’t Mess With Texas
2012 Declaration of Independence pushing for immigration

Jul 3, 2018

Let’s eat apple pie and celebrate liberty

I am called an American. My certificate of naturalization says so. It also lists my “country of former nationality” as Germany. Now what makes me an American? I eat apple pie, I speak English, I have a propensity for liberty. That’s good enough, right? Well, wait a minute. This whole hemisphere from Cape Horn to the Arctic is called America. Since I did not go to school in this country I had to look up why that is.

Please join me on that search and meet Amerigo Vespucci. He was an explorer who landed in the New World in 1502. Vespucci demonstrated that Columbus was wrong when he thought he found a shortcut to India. Vespucci showed that this is a truly new continent and that is how the latinized version of his first name became the name of my citizenship. Amerigo became America. Amerigo Vespucci was born in Italy, naturalized into Spanish citizenship and worked for the Portuguese government. That’s what America is all about: We wear our national identity lightly. The places we live and the identities we hold are subject to change. You are single one day and in a relationship the next. Then you may turn into a parent. All of sudden loved ones are gone. Nothing ever stays the same. Most Americans even hyphenate their self-classification: German-American, Czech-American, Anglo-American, Mexican-American and so on. America in its very name carries the notion of being from somewhere else. This land is not truly your land or truly my land.

The facts that I eat apple pie, speak English, and have a propensity for liberty – those are all things of this world. And as such they are only of secondary importance as 1 John 2:15-17 reminds us:
“Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world. And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live for ever.”

So this Fourth of July, let’s eat apple pie and celebrate liberty. But let us also remember that these desires are passing away. Only God’s love remains.

Jun 29, 2018

Fleeing vs Staying according to the former Archbishop of Canterbury

Ever since I left my parents for college I have not lived in a house for more than two years – except for the current one – it holds the record of four years! I have been used to moving a lot. In some cases it was a “running to” in others it was a “running from”. This movement has solid ancient precedents. The desert fathers and mothers of the early church are well known for moving away from it all. But of course their movement is also one of running from and to at the same time. They left everyday life in order to find solitude. But they also receive visitors and students. Rowan Williams beautifully unearths the story of Abba Arsenius and Abba Moses. These ancient saints gave the book its title. One sat in complete silence with the Holy Spirit, while the other was in a large group sharing honey cakes. Solitude and community are both equally important. And even going to the desert as an hermit does not change that dynamic. Eventually the former Archbishop of Canterbury offers a compelling reframing of what it means to flee or to stay. Fleeing like the desert fathers and mothers left civilization is hardly running from. They intentionally avoided distraction from the inner work they had to do. They avoided other people’s projections. They were running to focus and intentionality. In the final chapter Williams makes the case for staying. Just because routine gets boring or just because you start feeling an itch to move after a few years does not mean you should follow it. Of course the grass is always greener on the other side. Ultimately Williams succeeds in separating the concepts of fleeing and staying from a localized understanding. You can distract yourself in your community and miss your actual purpose. You can move half around the world and still be stuck in old unhealthy patterns. As long as movement is not about avoiding what needs to be done but a movement into development work it is good. As long as staying is not just laziness but enhances focus it is good. You should read Silence and Honey Cakes. It is enlightening and charming with cute British phrases like “shan’t”.

May 30, 2018

Spiritual Direction 101. The Basics of Spiritual Guidance by Teresa Blythe

The sticker on my windshield tells me that my car needs an oil change every three months or after so many miles. Also I go in for a spiritual oil change at least every three months, preferably every one or two. People have done that since the dawn of time. In recent years spiritual direction has entered the mainstream. More and more people understand that body, mind, and spirit need regular check-ups and check-ins. And where there is a demand, there will also be a supply. Spiritual direction comes out of the monastic tradition but is now available to everyone and offered by persons from a variety of backgrounds.

In her book Spiritual Direction 101, Teresa Blythe addresses those who want to hang their shingle and become active practitioners of spiritual direction. Now Blythe continues to remind her readers that everybody can simply call themselves spiritual director. The title and the work and not regulated in any way but she insists on maintaining the ethics of the profession as outlined by Spiritual Directors International. One big take-away for the aspiring or practicing spiritual director is to not do this work alone. Blythe continues to emphasize that spiritual directors receive supervisory spiritual direction themselves.

If Blythe’s book is your first formal education in spiritual direction you will love it for its bibliography. There you will find most important classics and a few hip and coming approaches. Blythe also shares abundantly from her own praxis of many years – like a list of most helpful questions a spiritual director can ask, with the top three being:
– What is it you care most about in life?
– When do you feel most fully alive? When do you feel least alive?

Although there is skill and knowledge involved, Blythe keeps reminding her readers that, “this is one of the great tests of spiritual direction: If you can remember that God is the true director.” Whether you work with groups or individuals, whether you work with cisgender or transgender persons, whether you work with people who are similar to you or very different, spiritual direction is about “honoring the third chair” – a reality that transcends the here and now. From this spirit of inclusion Blythe details how to work with the aging, the addicted, clergy, and other groups.

Finally Blythe gets into the nitty gritty of setting up shop: location, decoration, pricing, marketing and much more. Spiritual directors see their directees in coffee shops, church offices, professional offices or retreat centers. Their fees range from free to top dollars. Working your call to become a sustainable praxis requires a lot of discernment. It is probably best to check in with your own spiritual director about that when you meet next time. Oh, by the way, you don’t have to do spiritual direction as a stand-alone business. It also works well in other ministry settings. I just scheduled my next spiritual oil change.

May 29, 2018

Healing and Recovery with Creativity

I do not remember the names of my high school music or arts teachers. And they don’t deserve to be remembered. They told me I wasn’t good at music or arts and I believed them. To this day I don’t trust that I am a creative person, at least as far as formal arts and music are concerned. You may be the greatest artist or musician or you may be challenged as I am. Regardless of your skill: creative expression is important for developing and maintaining resilience. I have been part of the Fort Bend Recovers working group for emotional and spiritual health since Hurricane Harvey hit our community. Working with these dedicated leaders and helping our community get back on its feet is very rewarding. There is a lot of resilience that needs to be showcased and celebrated. And that is exactly what we are going to do:

Fort Bend Recovers … with Creativity’s vision is to celebrate our community’s restoration and resilience by promoting healing and recovery through original works. Fort Bend Recovers …with Creativity’s first project will be to present “The Harvey Experience – one year later”. This is the title of the anniversary event. We plan to hold the event on August 25th 2018. We are formulating our call for submissions, developing creativity categories which include both visual and performance art. The call for submissions will be worded to encourage residents of Fort Bend County (young and old) to tell their Harvey story – in writing, poetry & essay, in paintings, in music, in dance, etc. We hope that we will get a Harvey quilt, a Harvey rap song, and many Harvey paintings and drawings and photographs. “Art has a way of transforming hard truth, ugliness, and heartache and turning it into something beautiful. We believe that creative works will be healing for the creators as well as the observers/participants.” — Dr. Amy Harkins, a psychologist with Easter Seals Greater Houston

Fort Bend Recovers…with Creativity is working to finalize the details for The Harvey Experience. The details for the creative works will be posted soon. But don’t let that stop you from starting to create. Express your Harvey experience and share your process. We are not looking for the next Mozart or Van Gogh. My high school music and arts teachers are not invited to the event. You are free to express yourself and find your own voice.