Monday, April 29, 2013

Denominations: They're a Good Thing


Reposted from my old blog, Steve+Theology. Originally published 12/18/12.

Currently I have an ongoing conversation with a lady of the Jehova's Witness variety. This is primarily because currently I have time to chat and I'm interested in what she has to say. I genuinely like this lady, she's friendly and knowledgeable and goes out of her way to knock on my door about once a month. I admire her dedication. However, I'm beginning to tire of her argument that the existence of tens of thousands of denominations the world over means that tens of thousands denominations less one are wrong and thus not preaching the true gospel. In this woman's opinion, the Jehova's Witnesses have the right idea which means that no-one else could. Every one of our conversations start like this and thus I am becoming practiced in voicing my opinions when it comes to having serval denominations. In addition, I have heard that many non-Christians, and even many Christians, find this at best confusing and at worst troubling. Overall, I think having several denominations is a very very good thing. Here is why. Before I begin, I should say that my information is as I remember it from the past three years of seminary. I'm going to go over these really loosely and encourage you to do your own research on the specifics. Otherwise this blog post would become a rather sizable book.

Sometimes we're wrong. There are countless examples throughout history where people were catastrophically wrong. Christians have their fair share of these instances. In fact basic Christian theology hinges upon the fact that we suck. It's called total depravity. This doesn't mean we should be guilty, but I'm not getting into that here. It began with Adam and Eve, the very first people, who ate of the tree of knowledge even though the promised God they wouldn't. If we were always right we'd have no need for God's grace and Jesus would not have had to come, tell us, die, and rise again. As Christians, we believe that from time to time we are wrong. I highly doubt any non-Christian could say anything different.

When we're wrong it's often other people that point it out for us or challenge us to rethink our actions. Example: I'm a sailor and I spent the afternoon sailing today. The winds were very shifty and gusty and confusing. I had a difficult time knowing where the wind was. Fortunately a guy on a colourful catamaran was sailing along nearby. Hey catamaran guy, bet you didn't think you'd be mentioned in a theology blog because you sailed kind of close to another guy today, did you? In the unlikely chance you are reading this, thanks. I had a nice sail with you today. The reason I had a nice sail with catamaran guy was because when I thought I had things right and looked over at him I sometimes realized I was in fact mistaken. By him doing his own thing nearby me, I was able to improve doing my own thing near him. Of course, there are those other times when others find it necessary to force you to confront your mistakes as well. "Grandpa, give me your driver's license," comes to mind for some reason. The moral of the paragraph is that while we can often find our way alone, it just doesn't work the same. If we think we're right we'll just keep plugging along doing what may in fact be wrong. Sometimes we see others doing better and try things their way, other times people will confront us about glaring mistakes. This goes for others too, we're not always on the mistaken side of things.

Denominations work just this way. They each have their own unique history and character which leads them down this path and that. If there was just one denomination we may just continue on doing things the way we're doing them. If there's others around us we'll reevaluate more often and generally take part in growth and conversation. This is not to say that a one-denomination system couldn't have conversation within it, but quite frankly we're all Christians already. Creating a single denomination would be needless reproduction. Different denominations are different voices in the Christian conversation. They each address different regional and theological differences that have cropped up. I don't see what is wrong with this. Again, I actually think it's very important.

Denominations come to be for a whole variety of reasons. Disagreement is just one reason, although to be fair it is one of the bigger reasons. On top of that, it is not always disagreement about what the bible means. My own denomination has a real history of schism and union with various denominations for political reasons. Canada is a country built on immigrants and in the early days lots of denominations with reformed theology and government based on Calvin's model in some form or another came from Europe to Canada with immigrating people. For a while there were a ton of very similar denominations. Eventually a lot of them linked up together as they realized they were doing the same thing separately. This of course took time so there were surely people standing around at the time saying "why are there so many presbyterian denominations for so few people in pre-confederation Canada?" A later schism happened when one of these unions went through and a group of my denomination didn't want to join. There were a lot of reasons for and against joining. Some of them were biblical, some of them were practical, some of them were petty. Now, before someone says that the Bible has something to say about every decision we make, I totally agree. However, I'm trying to make a distinction between obvious deference to the Bible versus good use of God's resources for a wide audience. Perhaps I'll discuss this concept in another blog post. What I'm getting at here is that in a lot of cases different denominations exist not because of disagreement but simply for practical reasons.

One big practical reason is geography. Most denominations are separated by country. I'm not entirely sure why this is, I think it's just convenient. A few are state churches left over from times when state churches were what people did. Mostly, I think, it is simply because denominations are difficult to manage over borders and so no one bothers. So for this simple reason there are probably hundreds of duplicate denominations out there that get along famously, agree theologically, and are for all intents and purposes the same aside from regional differences. This isn't really a bad thing. It's merely a practical consideration.

On the largest scale there are five groups churches fall into: Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Radical Reformers, and Pentecostal. This is a bit of a controversial list, I'll explain in a moment. It could be said that the Orthodox is the closest descendant we have to the original church. It can trace it's roots back to the churches the apostles in the Bible set up. Aside from that I really can't tell you much about the Orthodox churches as I have very little interaction with them. In the Great Schism of 1054, the Roman Catholics split off from the Orthodox church. There were a few main disagreements: the nature of the Holy Spirit in the Trinity, the importance of the Bishop of Rome (later known as the Pope), and the role of icons. The next split was the Protestant Reformation that was a long and slow process beginning when Martin Luther posted the Ninety-Five Theses in 1517. As I understand it things came to a head over the selling of indulgences but this was indicative of a lot of other things. The two main features that I would point to between Protestants and Catholics are the role of the priesthood and faith versus works. At the time the priesthood had been allowed to become corrupt and essentially was selling people's salvation for a price, the reformers did their best to not allow this. Secondly, in Catholic theology one is saved by what they do based on their faith whereas in Protestant theology one is saved by their faith alone that will lead them to be compelled to do good things. In reality it looks like a small difference but it really does have far reaching implications past the scope of this blog post. Around the same time there was what was called the Radical Reformation. This is where groups such as the Mennonites and the Amish find their roots. This reformation said that both the Roman Catholics and the newly created Protestants were corrupt. Lastly, at the turn of the nineteenth into the twentieth century a group came out of the revival culture going on at the time that became known as pentecostals. It is difficult to say whether they are protestant or something new. They are different in that their basis is on gifts of the spirit such as prophesy, healing, tongues, etc. To the outsider this looks quite mystical versus the very studious nature of the churches before them, particularly the main protestant denominations. So in summation the defining characteristics are the link to the original church, faith versus works and structures of priesthood, "otherness" and perceived corruption in both Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, and lastly emphasis on the spirit.

There are smaller theological differences as well. I cannot get into denomination versus denomination but they often centre around various important Christian practices. There are many viewpoints on the last supper. Some say the bread and wine become Christ's body, others say it is representative of Christ's body, others say it is representative of the meal that Christ invites us to. There are certainly more. Baptism is another topic that comes up. Some believe that infants should be baptized into a Christian community and later affirm their faith. Others believe one cannot be baptized without it being a conscious adult decision and so dedicate their infants for baptism later. In addition some believe that one needs to be baptized in order to be saved while others see it as more of a help. Some also take sinning after baptism to be quite a bit more serious leading in the past to only deathbed baptism, though I am not aware of this being the case anymore. Sinning is another viewpoint that differs. In my tradition sin is inevitable and it is by God's grace alone that we are saved which tends to put us more at ease about sins. I should underline that we do think sins are wrong but unavoidable. In other traditions, sinning after baptism is a much more serious thing which creates a lot of fear and a lot more effort at not-sinning. Some view the Bible as a book that must be read exactly literally while others take a more lax approach, also believing it to be the Word of God but the product of the time it was written. I could go on. What is important to understand with these differences is that intelligent and serious people over thousands of years have come to these conclusions for very good reasons. We won't agree but it must be remembered that these viewpoints were not taken up lightly. It also must be remembered that all these viewpoints we encounter are attempting to describe the same thing. As such, particularly at the level of the general public who don't spend their careers debating the minute details of theology, these differences can easily seem extremely superficial. For instance, in terms of Baptism there is always a ceremony for infants and for adults. It is simply the time of the actual baptism that differs. However this is a reflection of very different theology that goes deep into the various traditions.

Another big difference is church government. This is a lot more cut and dry although specific examples can differ. They fit into three groups: episcopal, presbyterial, and congregational. I've heard it argued that church government is unnecessary and unhealthy. However, my counter to that is to look at any other large group of people. It can be argued as to what the form and reach of a management structure can take, however as soon as you get into any group situation you need a method for making decisions as a group. Think about your group of friends. If there are three of you going out for dinner you need a method for deciding where to go. This could be simple conversation until consensus is reached, however this in itself is a system. Of course, if one friend throws a tantrum and everyone else gives in this becomes no fun for anyone. This is why we need systems for group decision making. The larger the group gets the more complicated this gets. Churches are no different. Each of these systems is based on various biblically based precedent and often reflects the theology of the denomination using the system.

The simplest system is the congregational system. This is where each individual congregations makes their own decisions. They can loosely fall into an association of similar minded and/or structured churches or they can be entirely and completely individual. It's left up to the congregation itself, believing that the only true head of the congregation is Christ and therefore they have only Christ to answer to. The strength of this system is that churches are free to explore avenues it may be difficult to convince a larger group to explore. There is a lot of freedom. However, with freedom comes the possible lack of checks and balances.

The most well known form of government is the episcopal system because that is the format the Catholic Church uses, among several others. This is a top-down hierarchy. Christ is the head, then there is a structure of bishops and priests that mediates to the lay people. This system goes: Christ ==> The Pope ==> The Cardinals ==> The Archbishops ==> The Bishops ==> The Priests ==> The People. The Roman Catholic system is a bit larger because it is such a large church and the size necessitates it. There are other examples. The strength of this system is that decisions are easily and quickly made on a large scale. This, I believe, is one of the reasons episcopal churches are so good at responding to need quickly and doing mission work. On the other hand it can be prone to corruption and relegates the lay people to the sidelines.

The third type is the presbyterial system. It is a bottom-up system that uses committees in place of the single bishops that the episcopal system uses. In a way it is a hybrid of the other two. It is very democratic and in some ways similar to the parliamentary system used in Canadian Government. Like the congregational system it begins with Christ being the head of the congregation. The congregation elects (with the aid of the Holy Spirit) a group of representative elders to sit on a committee called the session. In a way, the minister is also elected to the session. In the Presbyterial system the congregation chooses the minister rather than having one appointed. The minister is a special (because of calling and seminary education) yet equal member of the session. The next level is often called presbytery but can be called other things. This is made up of equal amounts of clergy and lay people. There can then be any number of upper levels. My denomination uses this structure: Christ ==> Congregation ==> Session ==> Presbytery (county sized geographical area) ==> Synod (province sized) ==> General Assembly (national meeting that takes place yearly). If there is an issue to be addressed it is taken to the session and goes up to the appropriate level that it needs to go up to. The strength of this system is that everyone has a say in even the highest levels of church government. It is also built on many check and balance systems. It is often referred to as "group discernment of God's call." Having said this, it's weakness is it's convolution. It is often slow to make decisions and prone to breakdown if not maintained well.

So, as you can all see, Christianity is quite diverse. Because it is so old and so widespread there have over the years become many, many, viewpoints. Essentially one can take all of the different larger theological differences and multiply them by the smaller ones, then by the number of countries in the world, and then by the number of church government systems. It makes complete sense that there are so many denominations in the world. However, unlike my Jehovah's witness friend thinks, this doesn't mean they all disagree. If you examine them further you will find a few strong themes and some widely varying opinions but not near the amount of schism that the sheer number of denominations could be seen to indicate. In addition, you will find that each system has it's own avenue for reform which means that when wrongs are realized they are fixed. This can take some time but it happens. Regardless of the numbers of differences, however, I argue that differences are actually quite a good thing. As humans we are fallible and we're bound to make mistakes, grow, and change. Without that other voice of caution or simply entity for comparison or conversation change and discernment would be much more difficult.

In closing, I encourage all of you who are curious about church to do some homework. You'll find there are only a few local choices of denomination and each denomination will have a website explaining their beliefs. In addition while I wouldn't trust it entirely, Wikipedia can be quite helpful for finding out about different denominations. I'm also sure the local church leadership would be happy to chat with you about the traits of their denomination. Within those denominational options each church will have their own personality so don't be turned off of a denomination because of one church. One thing that I have realized is that if we grew up in a church, that denomination can often be the one we feel most at home in later in life because that's the community that formed us regardless of whether we stuck with that community or not. So if you're looking at getting (back) to church you might try starting with your old denomination or the one your ancestors attended. This post has not been meant to educate you about the different options out there but rather to discuss the why of the amount of options. If you'd like to know more about the specifics, I encourage you to go and ask. This is a topic most church-folk are happy to chat about. Godspeed.

Heavy Lifting


Reposted from my old blog, Steve+Theology. Originally published 12/18/12.

Currently I'm preparing a sermon for this coming sunday. I use the lectionary which is a calendar of Bible passages laid out over a three year cycle. This week is one in a series of passages where a theme is who Jesus is. There is certainly a focus on how powerful Jesus is, being God incarnate as far as most Christians are concerned. As I am preparing, I am reminded of just how many sermons I have heard that talk about how powerful and awesome Jesus is. I'm also reminded of how much of a pet peeve it is for me.

I suppose for me it comes down to a "so what?" Perhaps it's something I need to be reminded of from time to time. On the other hand, it's just a fact that I'm always left wondering what to do with this information. To me it seems like someone trying to impress me with muscles or card tricks. It's cool, it's great, but it's really not the heart of the matter, is it? I only need to be told how powerful Jesus is once in a while and I'm good. It's like saying "Canadian winters are really cold." I only need to be told once to be aware of that fact, and maybe reminded in early December every year so that I get my winter boots out of the basement. I think it's the same with Jesus. I know he's powerful. I suspect most people who don't consider themselves Christians are at least aware that we think he's powerful. Why don't we talk about something else?

Currently I'm trying to decide why I think Jesus power is overdone. I suspect that the vast majority of people in the vast majority of churches that I have been involved with are at least as aware of Jesus' power as I am. They are there because they believe or at least want to give believing a chance. They have the information that Jesus is powerful, now they want to know what that power is capable of. So the question to answer here is "now what?"

I also suspect that our society is unimpressed by power. Before people jump up and down on me, let me explain. We're impressed by powerful people or things but I don't think it's the sheer muscle they have but rather what they have the potential to do, are doing, or have done. I'm reminded of a contestant on Survivor a few years ago. He...was...built. This guy was in great shape, everyone suspected great things of him and yet he got the pants beat off him in every challenge by the flabby middle-aged people. So Jesus has big muscles, or at the very least Christians say Jesus has big muscles. The question to answer here is "therefore what?"

Lastly, I wonder to what extent Jesus' contemporaries were impressed by Jesus' power. I'm sure they were impressed by his abilities but the fact of the matter is there were other people around claiming similar abilities. There were always new supposed messiahs popping up everywhere. Perhaps if there were fewer of these supposed messiahs around Jesus wouldn't have had such a tough time.

So what I'm getting at here is not that Jesus power is unimportant, it is important, but it is a means to an end and we focus on the means far more for some reason. So for Christians, let's focus on the end not the means some more. For non-Christians, I promise I'm going to talk about the end rather than the means and I want you to know there is more to Jesus and God that omnipotent and sublime muscles. I'd love to hear comments on this, please go ahead and do so. Godspeed.

Reading the Bible


Reposted from my old blog, Steve+Theology. Originally published 6/27/12.

One more quick thing before I go to bed. As a Christian, it's important to read the bible. I'll be the first to admit that it is difficult. The reason being that I am here there and everywhere and it's a pain to lug around a book everywhere I go. I don't usually bring a bag or anything with me. Just keys and wallet. A water bottle if I am lucky.

My solution: BibleGateway RSS feeds. I've been very happy with this. It's been what I am looking for. I like this for a variety of reasons. Firstly, Google Reader is my friend. It's easy to miss a day and not get all screwed up. I also have a compulsion to not have anything unread on my list. I can look on my computer, I can look on my phone. I can look on my friend's computer or phone. It's accessible everywhere. Secondly, it's one of few net resources that don't use old or strange Bible translations because of copyright issues. Not entirely sure how they get around this, I'm just glad they do. My personal favourite is NRSV. Thirdly, there are choices and they make sense to me. I've seen reading plans on the internet before and they jump all around all over. There are plenty of choices here and they move through in an obvious and methodical pattern. For instance you can go chronologically by book (the books aren't arranged chronologically in the Bible). You could go in order. You could look at just letters, gospels, prophesy, history, etc. There are options. You can also choose a timeframe. Currently I'm doing the New Testament in a year. It starts at the beginning and goes to the end. It consists of literary units rather than skipping around. Very good. Lastly the RSS story is not just an abstract and link to the full story like those bloggers looking for a high visit count. The whole text simply comes into your inbox. Easy. Peasy. If you're looking for a stupidly simple way to get reading the bible, give this a shot.

Christianity and Stereotypes


Reposted from my old blog, Steve+Theology. Originally published 6/27/12.

I want to tackle an issue in my first blog post that pretty much gets to the heart of what this blog is: stereotypes of Christianity. While the stereotypes floating around out there are typically based on a very real thing, Christianity is probably the most if not one of the most diverse entities in human history. Yes, a lot of Christians killed a lot of people during the crusades. At the same time there were several groups of pacifist Christians floating around too. You simply can't paint with a broad brush.

The things to remember are these: Christianity is old, Christianity has (through positive means or otherwise) made it around the globe, Christianity is made up of all kinds of different people.

Let's start with old. Our calendar is loosely synced to Jesus' (the Christ, root of the term Christianity) life. That means it has been roughly 2000 years since the seed of Christianity was planted. If you want to get into it's Jewish roots (ie the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible as it is now PC to call it) then you can at least double that. Through these times the church has gone through many phases. These phases often are the result of realities Christians of the time are facing. You can even see this progression in the bible itself. If you look at the apostle Paul's writing (he is the most prolific writer of the New Testament) you can see a progression through his lifetime. Early in his writing he was operating from the view that the apocalypse could happen any second. Later in his writing he began to realize while the apocalypse could happen any second it could also be more than a lifetime away. This meant that early in his writing long term things were less important while later in his writing he began to realize that people may in fact need to plan into the future. Another example is the early church. Prior to Constantine the Christians were varying degrees of underdog. This meant that worship was small, perhaps secret. Churches were in people's houses or built into synagogues somehow. Virtually overnight when Constantine adopted Christianity as a state religion things changed. All of the sudden Christians had the full clout of the Roman Empire behind them. This is the history of Christianity. While the message shouldn't change (and changes less than we think it does) the container for the message changes as fast as society does.

Secondly, Christianity has made it into every nook and cranny of the globe. Regardless of whether it's caught on some eager missionary has made it at some point to every remote part of the globe. Christians believe they're compelled to share their information about God. Even me, hence the blog. As we all know, cultures are different. A professor once shared with me that in one indigenous bible translation they had to change snake to scorpion when Jesus asks what father would give his son a snake when his son asked for a fish. The reason was that in that culture snakes were considered a pretty tasty treat. That's a simple example but all kinds of things can change Christianity. Another example is how some Anglican churches have pews reserved for the royal family. That's a biproduct of the British Monarchy that has spread throughout the commonwealth. The way Christianity is expressed will change at least a bit wherever you go. Again, the message should (and for the most part does) stay the same from culture to culture but it will be in a different container.

Thirdly, the different people. I'm a ministry student and therefore I do supply preaching. It's like when you get a supply (or substitute for you Americans) teacher when your teacher is sick. If I preach at my college chapel service and drop the word "hermeneutic" then everyone knows what I'm talking about (or at least has heard the word). On the other hand, if I go to East Podunk Station and say that word I'm going to loose people. For years in my home town there were two churches of the same denomination right next to each other. They shared the same theology, same politics, they were part of the same initiatives, but the one church was where the pilars of the community  went and the other was largely railroad workers. The two groups just simply didn't mix very well. My point is not that Christians don't get along (though they sometimes don't) but rather that in the same way people are diverse so is Christianity.

Now, what a lot of people say to me at this point in the conversation is "well why bother, it sounds like none of you can get along anyway!" Well, Christians don't always get along. In fact often we don't see eye to eye. What we do have is a common starting point: the Bible and Jesus. After that we start exploring all sorts of crazy ideas. This is actually a good thing. If we can get along, and we should, it means that we are constantly talking to each other, questioning each other, and helping each other. If we all got along it would be like driving our cars down the road with our eyes shut and assuming we were in the right lane. By exploring different ideas and different thoughts that come from Christianity's diversity we're doing what Christians call "discerning God's call." Basically, it means we're making sure we don't get stuck in our ways and are following God's ways.

So in the end my point is this: Christianity is diverse and diverse for a good reason. Don't paint it with a broad brush, sure the church often deserves it, but it doesn't always. What painting with a broad brush does is remove people from the above mentioned conversation. If you are interested in criticizing the church then it means you care, otherwise you'd hopefully be busy doing any number of other funner things. If you care but are unhappy, then you want to see improvement. If you want to see improvement you need to come in and join the conversation rather than tearing things down from the outside. If you just like complaining about something you're not willing to fix, then go away. No one likes a complainer. If you're interested in taking part in the conversation, pay attention to forthcoming blog posts. I hope to do one soon on topics like choosing a church, different denominations, and the difference between Christianity and the church. Godspeed.

Theology: Queen of the Sciences

Theology was once referred to as "The Queen of the Sciences." The first universities were religious institutions and for centuries all learning started with an understanding of theology. Now, it would be arrogant to make this assertion today. On the other hand this saying is a good jumping-off point for what theology actually is. From a Christian perspective theology is the beginning of all reasoning. I'm telling you this because I have a second blog solely about theology. When I started blogging I wanted to keep my theological thoughts and my non-theological thoughts separate. From here on, they will be combined. For one, maintaining two blogs is a little inconvenient. Moreover it is inappropriate as this is a blog on my opinions and thoughts - things that are inseparable from theology.
Not this kind of Queen.

Theology on the most basic level is "thinking about God." Theos means God. -logy is related to talk, study and learning. Theology is related to studying, learning, and talking about God. The most widely accepted definition of theology is Anselm of Canterbury's "faith seeking understanding." What he means by this is one who has faith in God's existence, God's care, etc is seeking understanding about how this faith plays out in the world. Defining theology, however, is fairly difficult. Mainly because God is a controversial figure.

More like this one is Queen of the corgis...and commonwealth.
To begin with "studying God" is going to mean two vastly different things to atheists, theists, and even among theists. To an atheist, studying God is going to be like studying Shakespeare. You are looking at a topic and seeking to find out information about said topic. From this perspective studying God is in a tightly confined box. To a theist, on the other hand, it's much bigger. Of course, that depends on what kind of theist you are. As a Christian I believe God to be an omniscient being that created everything. Some other theists may believe different things about God or gods and that will change the way they look at theology. As a Christian who believes God created everything and has a hand in everything it follows that Theology has to do with everything.

To further complicate things, from the Christian perspective God is un-understandable. My favourite word for this is sublime. Sublime is something so big, awe inspiring, and powerful that your mind can't take it in and it is intimidating. My favourite illustration of this is Earle Birney's poem "Bushed." In this poem the character decides to move to a cabin in the woods but soon finds it to be overwhelming:

He invented a rainbow but lightning struck it
shattered it into the lake-lap of a mountain
so big his mind slowed when he looked at it

Yet he built a shack on the shore
learned to roast porcupine belly and
wore the quills on his hatband

At first he was out with the dawn
whether it yellowed bright as wood-columbine
or was only a fuzzed moth in a flannel of storm
But he found the mountain was clearly alive
sent messages whizzing down every hot morning
boomed proclamations at noon and spread out
a white guard of goat
before falling asleep on its feet at sundown

When he tried his eyes on the lake ospreys
would fall like valkyries
choosing the cut-throat
He took then to waiting
till the night smoke rose from the boil of the sunset

But the moon carved unknown totems
out of the lakeshore
owls in the beardusky woods derided him
moosehorned cedars circled his swamps and tossed
their antlers up to the stars
then he knew though the mountain slept the winds
were shaping its peak to an arrowhead
poised

And now he could only
bar himself in and wait
for the great flint to come singing into his heart


This is the sort of feeling that God evokes. As human beings that are less than God we can simply not understand God. Our minds would explode all over the place, or perhaps melt like in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Now, I should mention that I don't think God is wrathful this way. I like to think of this scene as if human beings were capable of understanding God this is what the resulting brain-overload would look like. Indie and Marion keep their eyes closed because they know they simply aren't capable of comprehending what they will otherwise see. I also happen to believe this is the feeling being drawn on when we say "God-fearing." It is not that God is something to be afraid of but rather that God is so powerful that the God-fearing person realizes the power of God and is a little afraid.
Does this mean he's PM of chemistry or something?

Of course, this isn't to say that we shouldn't try to understand God. Christians have a reputation for sticking their head in the sand. I'm pretty sure this is un-earned as it is simply a vocal minority that acts this way. As Christians we are supposed to be constantly striving for understanding. We should constantly be trying to understand how our faith plays out in the world around us. Faith seeking understanding. We won't arrive at understanding but we should constantly be seeking it. That's how we grow.

So from a Christian perspective, theology is indeed the root of everything. It is the root of science as this is a study of what God has created. The large hadron collider helps us to learn more about the thing God has entrusted to our care. The study of art is the study of the emotions and ability of expression that God has given us. This goes right down to things like your choices in the grocery store. Those are often choices of stewardship of God's creation. Environmental impact, self-impact, financial impact, impact on producers, etc. All these things trace back to God somehow.

So it is with this reasoning that I combine my two blogs. Thoughts about the church, God, and other spiritual "stuff" not only go together but belong together. This blog is dedicated to my thoughts and opinions and they will now be in once spot. So from here out I'll be transferring the few older posts here and this is where all future posts will be found.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Sailing: Do It.

My 1981 CL14 in the Bay of Quinte
My girlfriend suggested today that my blog is very heavily bike biased which is good because I like bikes but I have other things I obsess to equal if not greater degrees about. Sailing is one of them. In fact I am really into sailing. A lot. She thought it was a shame that I have yet to write about sailing and I completely agree with her. However, I realized I have little to say about sailing. Or perhaps I'm not sure where to start. I've got a whole head full of sailing knowledge that I love to talk about, but none of it may make sense and I need a solid starting point. After much deliberation and soul searching I realized that I should explain why I like it so much.

The reason you should do sailing is because it is simply unlike anything else. A sailboat exists between two forces and is propelled by making small adjustments to the way it interacts with those forces. It's pure. It's simple. It offers endless possibilities for tweaking and changes for speed and efficiency. It requires no fuel, power supply, or physical input. It's a metaphor for life and a great way to work through whatever is on your mind. Not to mention a pleasant, albeit slow, way to travel. I hope each and every one of you at least once gets to experience sailing at it's best.

Let me start with the theory. Many people I've talked to seem to think sailboats simply get blown around. This is not the case. More accurately they get sucked along. The sail is shaped like an airplane wing. Unlike a wing, it can be adjusted in many ways as you sail depending on the angle of the boat to the wind. This is more advanced stuff than this article will bother with though. When the sail protrudes into the air at the proper angle it creates a low pressure system just to the front leeward (down wind) side of the sail. There is essentially less air here than on the other side of the sail and the air on the windward side of the sail gets pulled in to fill that space. The sail has that air trapped and so the sail gets pulled into that space with the boat along with it. Left on it's own this will indeed just pull the boat downwind. However when you introduce a keel and a rudder it leaves one preferred direction for the boat to travel. A keel is simply a fin that extends from the bottom of the boat and runs in parallel with the length of the boat. The rudder is similar except it is on the back of the boat and pivots to allow for easy steering. These two foils, as they are called, can be overpowered by grossly improperly set sails however when the system is even close to equilibrium the result is forward propulsion. This is why sailboats can also go upwind, although not straight up wind.

For this reason the essence of sailing is obtaining an equilibrium. A balance. It is this equilibrium that results in forward movement, not the wind or any physical power input. It is this that is so fantastic about sailing. Maintaining that equilibrium can be any level of difficulty you like. Perhaps you go out only on calm days and only in simple boats with small sails. Easy equilibrium. On the other hand maybe you, like a gentleman I know, only go out on Lake Ontario, only in small craft warnings, only solo, and only on a high performance catamaran meant for two people. It can be a nice relaxing contemplative afternoon or a test of your mental and physical limits.

There is an additional reason for people with disabilities to sail. Sailing is the only sport that I know of where the playing field can be perfectly leveled. Well...maybe not perfectly. But nearly perfectly. Sailing is something that with the right equipment a quadriplegic can enjoy just as much, if not more, as an able-bodied sailor. Put them in the same type of boat or use a handicapping system and they can even race each other on a level playing field. I will say the equipment for quadriplegic sailing, known as sip and puff, is a little lacking at the moment. However there are some very capable and competitive sailors that use this technology and I hear it is about to get better.

So that's it. Go sailing. Experience it well once. I say experience it well because it is quite possible to have a horrifying experience sailing. Especially when you're new and don't know what's going on. So make sure you experience it well once. You'll never be able to leave it alone.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Fuji S12-S Review

This is my Fuji S-12 S from, I believe about 1982, as it appeared when I got it. I've got to say I'm pretty tickled with it. I got it back in October and for that month it was my stay-sane-during-school-project. Due to the timing of it's arrival I've only gotten out for a few rides on it however I must say I'm quite tickled with it.

Back in the summer I became interested in fixies. Not interested enough to invest in one but interested nonetheless. I ended up buying an old Raleigh ten-speed (check out my biking history here if you're interested) of unknown model and while I didn't like the bike itself I became quite interested in the bike's style. The bike shifted quite nicely and so I quickly became unwilling to de-gear it. Before long I realized I liked this style of riding. I was trying to decide whether to upgrade the frame to quality components when this Fuji popped up for less than a cheap aluminum wheel-set on Kijiji. Where the Raleigh was all odd-sized cheap steel components this had a good frame, fit better, and good components. The price was fantastic. As it turned out, a fellow who had no interest or idea in bikes had been offered the bike as partial payment for removing some scrap metal from someone's yard. He knew enough not to scrap it but was asking not much more than the scrap value would have been. I suspect it would have met it's end if not enough interest was shown in his ad. The end result was that I got a nice bike and he got a few bucks in his pocket. It was good for both parties.

As you can see, it was in good shape but needed a bit of work. All the grease had gone rubbery in the bearings. The brake hoods had deteriorated into a sticky mess. The grip tape was torn and not very comfortable. The chain was pretty stiff with way too much grease. The seat was hard as a rock. Surface rust had begun to form. The paint was looking old. It pulled quite badly to the right. On the upside, I thought the tires looked quite good and the cables looked good enough. It had nice reflectors that were mounted sensibly. It had a frame sticker that indicated it was made of Fuji straight-gage chromoly tubing with Suntour forged dropouts and fork-ends. It had eighteen gears made possible by a front granny gear chainring. It had aluminum bars, stem, micro-adjust seat post, hubs, rims, cranks, pedals, front chainrings, brakes, levers, and shifters. Basically everything metal that was not the frame, bearings, or axels was aluminum. Both wheels had quick-release skewers. The shift levers were the Suntour shifters that had a ratchet mechanism inside making the pressure equal for shifting up and down. The paint, I thought, was quite nice and in quite good shape. This was a bike I could certainly work with.

I began by stripping components from the frame. One of the first things I noticed about this bike was that the components were made of nice materials and were well-designed which made the bike extremely easy to clean up and pleasant to work on. The biggest problem was cleaning up the old grease. It had turned orange and not only gotten hard but sticky and rubbery. Usually old grease comes off relatively easy but this grease took some work. I finished the cleaning process by washing every part with dish soap and hot water in the laundry tub, being careful to rinse off all of the soap when finished. I next began inspecting the front forks. They were chrome tipped with a chrome crown that had "Fuji" stamped on the top. I thought this looked great however the paint was coming off in big flakes. Initially I thought about repainting them but I doubted I could match the paint well. I soon realized that the whole fork was chromed which was probably why the paint wasn't sticking well like it was on the frame. In the end I decided to strip the paint and polish up the chrome underneath for a full chrome fork. They turned out great although I will say that I liked the black better. Removing the paint was the right decision as I doubt I could match the paint well-enough for it to look right. Even if I could match the paint the forks would look too new compared to the older frame. I then waxed the frame and polished every component to as high a shine as I could either with the wax if it was painted or with the metal polish if it was chrome or aluminum. Some of the aluminum bits were quite oxidized and some (like the seat-post) was quite scratched. In the lighter cases I used very fine sandpaper or a wire brush to remove the oxidation and then polished to a shine. In the heavy cases I used coarser sandpaper to only remove the high parts of the scratches and then polished. The only bits I couldn't get to were the insides of a few allen-key sockets. I may still try for those because it looks quite bad compared to the rest of the bike and bothers me. In reassembly I used marine trailer wheel-bearing grease. It'll resist water and is about the same consistency as the stuff the guy at my bike shop uses.

The wheels were a little tricky. To clean them I used a pot scrubber and hot soapy water and they turned out not bad. I didn't get them to 100% because it's like trying to push a rope up hill. On my motorcycle I realized the only way to do a satisfactory job is to rebuild the wheel, polishing each spoke individually. On a showpiece this is great. On something to be used this is overkill. I didn't want polish on them because I didn't want to affect braking on the rim and I didn't want to miss globs of polish on the difficult hub and criscross bits. The pot scrubber worked really great. It was fake steel wool my mother found. That's all I can tell you. Don't use steel wool as it'll leave ferrous deposits, this was some kind of similar plastic. The brake pads had left big black streaks in the rims. These scrubbers took them out no problem when a stiff brush did nothing. As I also mentioned, the bike pulled to the right quite badly. At first I was worried something was bent. I began, however, to suspect the front wheel was not dished right. For this I had to make a makeshift dishing gage. I used scrap wood that I had around and put a screw through the centre to check the dish. It actually worked very well. So well it's going to be kept rather than thrown back into the wood pile. It turns out that the wheel was dished 5mm to one side. The wheel was entirely in true and the spokes were properly tensioned. Somehow it was intentionally dished 5mm to one side. It now rides like a dream. I trued both wheels using the fork from an old CCM Targa with a ruler strapped to it in a vise. I had no tension gage and so I used an idea from a link on Sheldon Brown's site of using a pitch-pipe to get them close enough. Quite happy with the result.

I also added a few things. On the handlebars I replaced the polkadot bar tape with some black Bontrager gel/cork bar tape. I like a bit of spongy feeling to the bars. While I was at it I replaced the brake levers with a set of aero-levers. My LBS had some used Dia-Compe levers that were pretty ugly but still mechanically just fine. I sanded off the paint and then used the metal polish to protect them. They now look like brand new and match the bike better than they would have new. I did this for two reasons. The first was now that I had a road-bike without safety levers I wanted something easier to squeeze because my left hand is a little weak. I wasn't positive these were the answer, hence why I bought used. They do seem to be easy to squeeze however I do have trouble using the lever with my left hand. The horn is comfortable to ride on but the lever is difficult to operate. I've routed the right lever to the back brake as I can make it work but am more comfortable with my right. I may look into different levers in the future. I also wanted aero-levers for cable-routing purposes. I like to set the bike upside down if I need to fix something in a pinch and I've screwed up too many cable housings this way. In addition they get in the way when you put the bike in tight places. With the frame-shifters and aero levers there is now hardly a cable to be seen. I can throw the bike in the trunk and have one less thing to worry about. It's great. I also think they look better. Lastly, I got a nice King of Ding bell for Christmas. I don't like bells, however you have to have one. I hate it when they fall apart or jingle when you go over bumps. This one has a really nicely made stainless clamp and brass bell. It looks like it'll withstand a nuclear blast. I can now forget about needing a bell. I must say it's nice looking too.

In terms of the frame, I mounted the Brooks Flyer from my Superbe. I got this saddle for half price last year at a local bike shop. It was a sweet deal, sweet enough for me to go with a non-correct saddle for the Superbe. It's supposed to have a B66. The Flyer is a nice compromise, medium width saddle with some springs in it. It's meant for a more aggressive bike but with comfort in mind. A great touring saddle. When I finished the Fuji I realized it was just a better fit on the Fuji than the Superbe. The Superbe is just too upright for a narrow saddle like that. In addition I ditched the broken water bottle cage and lock mount. If I carry a lock I refuse to do so with a frame mount, there are better ways. Right now I have a cable lock anyway. As for the water bottle mount, I am as yet undecided whether I will leave it off or put a new one on. I like the bare look better. I really like the saddle bag I added. It's an old WWII surplus ammunition case (I think) that has been kicking around the house for aeons. I took the strap off and fastened it on with zip ties. It's just enough to fit a lock, a couple tools, a small towel, and a few other odds and sods. If I'm going for a longer ride I can fit a big water bottle in it and carry a smaller one on my removable beverage cage on the handlebars.

I've realized I like toe-clips quite a bit. I would never use them with cleats but it's just the right amount of foot retention for the shoes I tend to wear. As such I bought some nice Zefal Christophe clips and black straps. The white Raleigh had nylon straps and clips which were good but I found they flexed too much. The steel clips stay put much nicer and I just like the leather straps better. I've also found the metal clips more adjustable which is nice since I have a lot of toe-out on the left.

Lastly, I ended up having to put new tires on the bike. The tires that it came with looked fine to me but I had a blowout that made it obvious I needed new ones. It's a funny story actually because I was en-route to another town and had the bike in the back of my hatch back. I had filled the tires at 0C but the car had warmed up to about room temperature, causing the pressure in the tires to rise and quickly. The dog was lying in the back beside the bike when the tire went off with quite a bang. It tore a two inch gash in the sidewall, filled the car with talcum powder, and raised the air-pressure quite noticeably in the car for several seconds. Not to mention scaring the bejezus out of the dog. The tires I bought are Vittoria Zaffiros. I know little about them. My bike shop didn't have a lot of choice in 27inch tires and I wanted a decent tire rather than a bargain tire. They're supposed to be tough. I think they look reasonable but only time will tell. One thing I can say about them is they were quite significantly lighter than the previous tires, in fact I think the front wheel as a whole weighs half of what it did before. For some inane reason I also decided to switch to presta-tubes too. It seemed like a good idea at the time but it wasn't worth the bother of making them work in Schrader holes. Now I look like a poser until I use up these tubes plus my spare. Oh well.

What I ended up with is what I'd call a life bike. It's certainly not exotic but it's a good standard quality bike. Parts are less likely to break and when they do they'll be easy to replace at any bike shop. I like that the frame is straight-gage chromoly. It's a good non-exotic alloy and will take some abuse. I've heard one must be careful of dents with butted. I couldn't care less if the bike was lighter. I think it's hovering around 23-25lbs which is more than fine by me. It also leaves the door open for loading the bike up in the future. Knowing what the frame is made out of and knowing it's decent material means to me it's worth maintaining as well. In the future I won't have to decide between a new (used) bike or fixing a component. I'll just fix a broken component.

Just like these,
I don't have a good picture.
Speaking of components, it has nice ones. Again, not exotic but quality with a few nice touches. For one it shifts quite nicely. It's an old Suntour groupset with some decent components for the time. It has a granny chain ring making it eighteen speeds for getting up steep grades, my nemesis on the three-speed Sturmey-Archer powered Superbe. The rear six-speed Suntour cluster is some kind of higher end unit. It's sort of a gold-tinged chrome color. I once looked up what it was but have since forgotten. It looks nearly brand new and cleaned up nicely. I am actually most impressed with the shift-levers. I like friction-shifters for their simplicity. Most frame-shift levers I've seen are simple friction devices. These however have a ratchet mechanism which means you don't have to overcome cable tension. Usually I'd say this is overcomplicating things but it's a pretty foolproof mechanism. On the upshift (releasing tension) the derailleur springs counter-act friction as usual. Upshifting requires a typically light touch. On the downshift, however, the ratchet mechanism lets the friction mechanism stay stationary, meaning you only have to counter-act the derailleur spring tension - requiring an equally light touch. It's just a pleasant feature that did not have to be added but was and I suspect will have few - if any - problems.

Most other bits are nice but probably not worth mentioning as they're fairly standard. As I said, single bolt aluminum micro-adjust seat post, aluminum stem and bars, aluminum Dia-Compe side-pull brakes, aluminum wheels with front and rear quick release, cool aluminum cotterless cranks with "Fuji" written on them.

The last thing I'll mention, and I suspect this is the previous owner's doing, is the way the reflectors are mounted. Of course as usual they are mounted to the brake pivots. Instead of having some stupid plastic setup or something else (or no reflectors at all) these have a simple one inch by four inch strip of galvanized sheet-metal (as I said, this is a home remedy) that is screwed to the back of the reflector and to the nut on the brake pivot. It's really simple but it's nice. I've knocked them a few times already and rather than breaking they just bend back into place. It's just a nice simple solution that I'll be doing on future bikes, though maybe I'll find some stainless instead of galvanized sheet metal.

In terms of improvements, I have a few. After a couple of rides I'm not sure how I feel about the pedals. They are meant for cycling shoes, at least for stiffer-soled shoes than my Chuck Taylor's I tend to ride in. As such the edge of the quill style pedal digs into my foot and my foot is sore after a decently long ride. This causes all kinds of other pains to crop up elsewhere. In addition they have no flat on the bottom of the pedal which makes the few times I want a standard pedal a pain. What I'm thinking of doing is upgrading to some MKS GR9 platform pedals. Possibly there are other similar pedals that would also work. This way I could keep my clips yet have a pedal that doesn't dig in. I was also contemplating playing with some aluminum BMX platform pedals and clips. I'll look into it further in the spring. I'd also like to replace the brake pads with some cool stops or something similar at some point. These pads are good enough but should probably be replaced and I've heard enough about the cool-stops that I'm going to try to go that route if I can get them. I also need a different cargo solution. The ammo-bag is good for short trips where I just need a few little things. I don't like riding with back packs, especially for longer rides which is what I got this bike for. The largest thing I need to carry is my laptop. I wouldn't carry this often with me. However I would like to be able to carry a book, some food, a change of clothes, and maybe some light shopping. I'm a big fan of panniers but I feel like they might be a little much for my intentions on this bike. I think ideally a large handlebar bag would be nice but one big enough for my laptop could get ridiculous. Currently I'm in the market for a pump. Initially I wanted a floor pump but I may go for a good frame pump and mount it on this bike.

As far as riding the bike goes, I'm pretty happy with it so far. I might cave and go get it fitted because I'm not sure I know what I'm doing. It handles quite nicely, I can take my hands off of the bars with ease, and there are plenty of hand positions. Often I just rest my hands on the bars rather than grasping them. I feel comfortable doing this over bumps etc. It won't do anything erratic although it seems to weave a bit with each pedal stroke. It could be a too-loose headset or a headset that wants to move to the edges. When stopped the headset really turns to the side quickly. However when I walk the bike I merely need a hand on the saddle and it easily goes in a straight line. Having said this, it really doesn't bother me. It feels fast and agile enough yet it has a solid well-built feel. My first ride on it was 30km. Since then I've done several 20km rides and I've been riding it on a trainer I got for Christmas. It's taking getting used to the position but I have weak core muscles and I'm not sure the seat is dialed-in yet. I feel like I'm putting too much pressure on my wrists and wanting to come forward on the seat. Having said this, I think just today I got the seat in the right angle and forward-back adjustment. I can quite comfortably ride on the trainer sitting straight up and down with no hands on the bars. It's when I bend forward that I want to keep going and I'm not sure whether this is a riding position thing or a weak core-muscle thing. With every ride on the trainer the position gets a little better. I suspect by the spring it'll be perfect.

Overall, as I said I'm quite tickled with this bike. The more I ride it the better it gets, too. It's light. It's reasonably quick. It keeps getting more comfortable. I can put it in my trunk and take it with me. And frankly, I think it's beautiful. In fact, my Dad who is skeptical of my current bike obsession and a little fed up with three bikes in his garage, keeps walking by and telling me what a pretty bike it is. He's not the type to do that, especially with bikes. This photo doesn't really do it justice, so here's another from a fantastic ride along the waterfront. Not the whole bike, but what a scene. What I missed was the mist hanging over the water when I first hit the waterfront path. I want this snow gone now.