No Place to Aspire to


It is startling how often desert (or deserted) islands come into play in questions of theology and ethics. How many times have you heard the desert island scenario proclaimed as a possible counter-example against some doctrine or practice?

There are two significant issues with the desert island trope. First, it tries to establish normal practice by means of an exceptional one. None of us live on desert islands. We live on continents with millions of other people. We have resources of family, friends, church, healthcare, education, and much more. It may be an interesting thought experiment to consider some situation in light of a desert island scenario, but we should be careful drawing any sweeping conclusions from such.

The second, and more distressing, issue with desert islands is that they reveal who we are and what we value as westerners, particularly Americans.


When we place ourselves on a desert island for the sake of argument, we are revealing that not only are we supremely interested in ourselves, but that we also see ourselves as the ultimate authority in our lives as we alone make our own decisions. These scenarios reveal how we really think. They strip away the distractions and isolates what we see as the crucial variables in the discussion.

A problem this can cause, however, is that the desert island can serve as a distraction. By eliminating so much from the discussion, we can cut out inconvenient (to our cause) factors. Consider a classic example: “If you were alone on a desert island with only a Bible, is it possible to be saved?” For much of the Protestant world, the foregone answer would be, “Of course.” And therefore, we see church as an aid, not as an essential. But there is a serious problem with this line of reasoning.

We are not alone on desert islands. We are on continents, and those continents have churches — even Antarctica. We must factor the church into our questions on faith because it is a significant variable which exists in our set of things to consider.

A more accurate phrasing of the question above would be, “Can we ignore the church and be saved by our own efforts?” I daresay we may garner a different answer if we posed that query to a selection of theologians.

Some would still affirm that yes, we can. Some would not. The Church Fathers would certainly look askance at such a stance. Cyprian of Carthage argued this point by writing, “He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother.”

A desert island is no place to seek to dwell. It is to be alone and left solely to our own devices. We should seek to live in community with our fellow man and in submission to the authorities which God has established. To seek to be our own supreme ruler is to place ourselves in bad company. Lucifer was cast out of heaven for such action.

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Filed under Authority, Questions, The Church

Take and Read

Sola Scriptura folks like to point to Augustine of Hippo’s experience in a garden in Milan as an example of the power of Scripture. He heard what sounded to him like a child chanting, “Take and read; take and read.” He picked up a copy of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans he had with him and read:

Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Romans 13:13-14 (ESV)

These folks, however, forget that this is the climax of the story. Book VIII of Augustine’s Confessions tells the whole story — about 20 pages in my edition. Augustine did not just hang out in a garden, hear a voice, read, and become converted. It was a much longer road than that. Indeed, the entire book of Confessions up to this point chronicles the long, twisting road he had been traveling to true faith.

It was not merely two verses of Scripture that worked such an effect on his life. He knew saints and he knew of saints — Ambrose, Anthony, and Victorinus among others. He had at least some of the Scriptures available to him and he studied them. He resisted the drawing of the Holy Spirit but eventually came to surrender. His story reveals that he had already surrendered before he heard, “Take and read,” and repented in tears before God in the garden. The passage he read in Romans was more of a confirmation than a call.

Scripture is important — vitally so — in the life of the believer and the church. But it is not magical. It is not a spell book to read incantations out of in order to command the divine to our will. It is a gift of God, by the Holy Spirit, through the church.

There is benefit in taking and reading, but just as with prayer, humility is crucial. If we come to the pages of Scripture seeking support for what we think, we are on dangerous ground. We should come asking what we ought to think. What we ought to believe. What we ought to do. We should listen to Scripture, and to the Holy Spirit, and to the Church.

As Americans, we get excited when we hear stories of someone opening a Bible for the first time and being converted. This demonstrates our individualism more than our reverence for God’s Word. We are a nation of individuals who value doing things our own way. Our patron saints, from a cultural perspective, are John Wayne and Frank Sinatra. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps and do it your way. But this is not the way of Christ or his church.

Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is…. giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Ephesians 5:17, 20-21 (ESV)

We should hold up stories of those who come to Scripture and then walk into a church, saying, “Help me understand.” This, if we read the story, is much closer to Augustine’s actual experience than merely the “take and read” snippet at the end of the chapter.

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Filed under Bible, Humility

Prayer and Pride

We must be humble in order to pray. In pride, we may do things that are prayer-like, but they are not prayer. At its most basic level, prayer is either asking for something (daily bread, forgiveness of sins, healing) or thanking for something (God’s grace, family, health).

We cannot ask for something out of pride. If I have pride, then I either deserve it (at least in my mind) so I can order it, or I expect it. I may even think I can do it myself. Humility asks. Humility acknowledges dependence upon another. Even in human relationships, just because I am “in charge” or “superior” to someone in position doesn’t mean I can’t ask, or that by telling them to perform some duty I am not acknowledging my neediness. Leaders have staffs because they cannot do it all themselves.

We also cannot give thanks out of pride. If I am full of pride, then I deserve whatever it was that was provided. I expect such service or quality. To be thankful is to acknowledge the receipt of something from outside of oneself. Thankfulness is acknowledgement of a gift.

To petition God in humility is to acknowledge our powerlessness. We ask because on our own we cannot cause it to be. We cannot forgive ourselves of sin. We cannot provide all that we need for life. We may come to think that we are “putting bread on the table” but without God to cause the crops to grow and the rain to fall, there is no bread. We may have a part to play, but it is secondary to God’s, or even tertiary, since most of us don’t even make our own bread today. We are dependent; to acknowledge this truth is a prerequisite to prayer.

To thank God in humility is also to acknowledge our limits. We thank God for his character because if it were different, we would be doomed. We thank God for his deeds because we are the beneficiaries of them constantly. From the breathtaking grandeur of his creation to the blessing of a warm bed on a cold night, we thank God for providing us what we need and so much more.

There is a reason Christians have historically knelt to pray. It is a posture of submission, of humility. It reminds us that we come before one more powerful than ourselves when we address God. Standing is also a common posture for prayer and reflects this as well, especially in our contemporary society. We don’t have many instances outside of church where we are expected to kneel, but we may have superiors at work to whom it is appropriate to show respect by remaining standing until invited to sit.

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Luke 18:9-14 (ESV)

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Filed under Humility, Prayer, Pride

Obvious Advice for the New Year

We are a few days into 2017 and gym ads arrived right on cue in my mailbox this afternoon. Time to put some teeth to those resolutions (or at least extract some money from those who made them!) Another new year is as good a time as any to start afresh, to seek to right the wrongs, to improve ourselves and accomplish our dreams.

Of the various schools of ancient Greek philosophy, I have always had an affinity for the Stoics — ascetic, logical types, in sharp contrast to the hedonistic Epicureans. Stoics weren’t afraid to make the obvious explicit. Like this gem from Epictetus:

Whatever you would make habitual, practice it;
and if you would not make a thing habitual, do not practice it,
but habituate yourself to something else.

Isn’t this the core of most “self help/ self improvement” writing? Do what you need to do in order to be who you want to be. It’s so obvious as to be laughable. You can find thousands of people on the internet telling you that’s what you need to do to get where you want to be.

So why do we have such a hard time pulling it off?

Take this blog for example. I’ve had it for years, but for most of those years I just wrote on it when I felt like it. Posts were sporadic and widely spaced. 1 January 2016 I decided I wanted to write more, so I set myself a goal to write 500 words a day. The first 6 months, it went pretty well. Then we moved and it has been an uphill climb ever since.

Maybe Europe is just a more inspirational place to write than the Pacific Northwest. My schedule has played a bit of a role, but I have been able to adapt so as to have the time. Even so, I still find it increasingly difficult to get to 500. Part of it is the struggle for material. Finding things to write about seemed to come easier during the first half of the year.

Proficiency comes from sticking with something after the initial thrill wears off until mastery is attained. It is hard. It takes a lot of self discipline. It requires intense effort for seemingly small gains. This holds true whether you are training for a marathon, learning an instrument, or in just about any other pursuit. There is a desert between novelty and mastery that we must cross. It is long, arduous, and often lonely. It can feel barren and dry. But on the other side is the real goal — the attainment of the skill or ability that caught our imagination in the first place.

This applies also to our journey of faith. In an age where people binge-watch television programming like it was their job, it seems we should be able to put that same effort into our own salvation. If we truly want to become holy, we must cultivate holy habits. This takes a lot of work, but what else is worth our greatest effort, if not knowing God?

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Filed under Discipline, Priorities, Sanctification, Writing

Listening to Suffering

In the liturgical calendar, Christmas is followed immediately by the Feast of St. Stephen, whose martyrdom is recorded in Acts 6 and 7. In the midst of celebration, we are reminded that suffering is interwoven in the tapestry of our faith.

In the Christian West, we have all but lost the sacrament of suffering. To even suggest that suffering may have benefit is to invite scorn in most quarters. While it can be a laudable service, the alleviation of suffering is a tyrannical and merciless master.

The advance of euthanasia in the West is an stark example of this. In our efforts to minimize suffering, we instead seek — and increasingly impose — death. As we increasingly commodify our very bodies, there is increasing pressure and apologetic for aggressive organ harvesting in order to supply the demand of those awaiting donation.

All of this seeks to avoid the sacrament of suffering. Pain is unpleasant, but it often clarifies our vision and prunes our priorities. Intense pain makes it difficult to focus on much else, but lower-intensity chronic pain is wearying. In this weariness, the unrelenting constancy of chronic pain, we learn what it means to lay our burdens on our Lord. Pain prompts us to prayer — not invariably, but if we are already formed in the faith it ought to.

We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.

C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

Increasingly, we silence that megaphone by treating all pain as the enemy and warring against it with the tenacity that should be leveled against sin.

I still remember, in the aftermath and recovery from a ruptured appendix, lying in a surgeon’s office to have my wound repacked and reattached to a wound vac. I carried the portable vacuum pump with me for weeks to aid in pulling the hole in my side back together for proper healing and drainage. Having the adhesive dressing ripped from my skin and the foam packing similarly removed from my side twice every week was a spike in the low-grade pain of healing.

As I lay on the exam table, staring at the ceiling in the earth-toned room, I closed my eyes and prayed, “Jesus, don’t let this pain be wasted.” Though I didn’t know it at the time, it may have been one of the most profound prayers I have ever uttered. A decade later, I still reflect on those two months of my life. That experience — from the sickness to the pain of the rupture through the surgery and the long recovery — is a defining moment in my life.

Throughout most of the history of the church, suffering has been viewed as a means of sanctification. It is the uncontrolled version of asceticism — voluntary denial in order to increase attention to God. Suffering finds us; we do not have to seek it. It may be a headache or the discomfort of a long car or plane ride. Occasionally it is more intense, and eventually, it marks the way to death.

We are right to be cautious about intentionally seeking pain, but we should also be cautious in always viewing pain as an enemy. It can be God’s means of speaking to us.

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Filed under Asceticism, CS Lewis, Sanctification, Suffering

Holiday Travel

I haven’t been writing lately because I’m busy trying out being a grandpa for the first time. So far, I really like it!

But, unfortunately the trip to get to this coast to see our little princess wasn’t quite so sweet. It brought to mind this post from several years ago.

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Filed under General

Fountain Pen Comparison

I have been writing with a Pilot Metropolitan medium point fountain pen for about 4 years. A good friend recently gave me a Lamy Vista fine point fountain pen. Sounds like  a good excuse to write a comparison and review.


This is the biggest difference between these two pens. The Pilot wouldn’t look out of place in your great-grandfather’s desk drawer. It is a classic cigar-shaped pen. Mine is basic black, but they do offer more colors and some prints to spice things up a bit. Carrying it in your shirt pocket, it is unlikely to catch anyone’s eye. It is classic understated elegance.

The Lamy Vista is an eye-catcher. It is a clear-bodied Safari, which is a very modern looking design. It is also available in many colors. The distinctive Lamy clip in a shirt pocket will definitely catch someone’s eye, especially one who knows a thing or two about pens. People can be ambivalent about the look of the Pilot, but they tend to either love or hate the Lamy. It’s flashy and modern.

Fit, Finish, and Feel

Both pens are well-made. The finish is good and the fit is good on all the components. Both look and feel like the quality writing instruments from solid manufacturers that they are. Nothing wiggles that isn’t supposed to.

The Pilot has a brass barrel and cap that give it a great feel, with just a bit of heft (3.7 ounces) and the feel of metal in your hand instead of plastic. Everything about this pen defies its price tag. The cap fits snug with a pleasing click and is easy to post firmly on the barrel.

The Lamy has a good feel in the hand for a plastic (ahem) acrylic pen. It is lighter (0.7 ounces) and the cap is sealed with a rubber O-ring that helps keep it in place and muffles the click of capping it. The cap also posts well on the barrel without difficulty.

The Lamy is not balanced when capped; it is cap-heavy. I am certain this is on purpose as there is rarely anything coincidental about German engineering. My hunch is that it is (at least in part) to let you set it on your desk clip-down. I’m not sure why you’d need to do this, but it is interesting to note.

Another tidbit about the cap: because of the slightly rounded finial, you cannot stand it up on the cap end, though you can on the other end. Not sure this really matters to anyone, but there you have it. You can’t stand the Pilot up any direction.


One important thing about a pen is for it to be there when you need it. I am on my second Pilot Metropolitan because I lost my first one; it slipped out of my pocket and was gone by the time I went back to look for it. Recently I have started carrying a couple pens in this little contraption I made to fit on the cover of an A6 notebook that I carry in a pocket.

While the bend in the Lamy clip makes it easy to insert into a pocket, it also catches on things. When pulling my notebook out of my pocket upside down one day, only the Pilot was safe and snug while the Lamy sat in my pocket waiting to be retrieved.

If you’re a uniform-type, the Pilot fits into the pen slots on a uniform sleeve easier because of its rounded end. The Lamy looks wider, until you get them next to each other and realize the Pilot is just as wide at its widest. They are within a millimeter of each other in capped length as well. So, though the Lamy fits, the squared end and straight sides induce more friction, making it easier to get just the cap when pulling it out of a narrow sleeve.

Both pens slide easily onto a manila file folder and hold tight even when shaken fairly vigorously. The clips perform equivalently, even though they are of markedly different designs.


The grip is the next biggest difference after appearance. The Pilot has a round and tapered plastic grip. I find it very comfortable to write with, though some find the metal step — the silver band — between the barrel and the grip to be uncomfortable. I write with the cap posted which gives the Pilot a nice balanced feel.

The Lamy has a triangular grip like you would expect from a penmanship pen. (They still teach penmanship in Germany. I miss the vast selection of fountain pens for children at the local Kaufland when I lived there.) The grip is flat where your forefinger and thumb rest and rounded underneath, and this alters my grip a bit. I tend to write with my forefinger and thumb touching, but the Lamy grip separates them a bit. This initially made me want to rotate the nib slightly to get it to lay flat with my grip, but after a page of writing, I was used to it. The Lamy’s grip is actually bigger than the Pilot, but the two flat finger grooves make it feel smaller to my hand.


Both do an excellent job of enabling you to put ink to paper. The nibs on both of these pens are top-notch steel nibs, making for very smooth writing. I currently have Noodler’s Heart of Darkness in my Pilot and the supplied blue cartridge into my Lamy.

The Japanese medium truly is equivalent to a Western fine. Ink can affect line width to some degree, so this isn’t a perfect comparison, but to my eye, they seem to be the same width. I added my go-to ballpoint, the Pilot G2 0.5 for a sense of scale that may be more widely known.



Both pens come with an ink cartridge and both have proprietary designs that keep you from using the standard international cartridges. The Pilot ships with a bladder type converter along with one cartridge, but the converter is not terribly useful unless you have your ink bottle handy, because it holds very little ink.

The Pilot cartridges are easy to refill, however. I have an old eye drop bottle filled with ink so I can refill on the go. Using a bent paperclip to remove the round bit that is pushed into the cartridge when you first install it on the pen makes it easier to refill and clean.

The Lamy has a window on each side of the pen to allow you to see if your ink is getting low, which is unnecessary on the clear Vista, but potentially handy on the Safari. To check your ink level on the Pilot, you have to unscrew the barrel, but with my normal use, I can go a couple of weeks before needing to refill.

The Lamy cartridges have a smaller opening than the Pilot cartridges, so my dropper method for refilling is not practicable. I was able to get a few drops of bottled ink into mine, but it is not a procedure I want to go through every time it needs refilled. I plan to either try a real syringe or a converter, instead. Piston converters are available for both pens, allowing you to refill from bottled inks without removing the cartridge.

Price has the Black Pilot Metropolitan medium for $13.05 and the Lamy Vista Fine for $28.50. Other nib widths and colors only vary a couple of dollars for both pens. The Metropolitan comes in medium and fine, while the Lamy has a wider selection and replacement nibs.


Both are great pens and have loyal followings. To differentiate them from each other, it really comes down to appearance, price, and grip. They are different enough to not be in direct competition with each other, and I know many people who (like me) have both.

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Filed under General, Writing