I was on the phone with my son, and just as I was about to hang up, he asked me, "How was church?" This was an interesting question because he's not sure what he believes and has only recently professed a belief in God.

"Fine," I said. "We worshiped, confessed our sins, prayed, took communion; it wasn't primarily about the sermon since the sermon is usually pretty short in the Episcopal Church."

"So just a whole lot of ritual," Sam said; more of a statement than a question.

"Ritual is just the way you do something," I replied.

"I suppose."

"My ritual was meaningful for me this evening."

"Well, I'm glad it was meaningful for you then," Sam concluded.

After our conversation, I started thinking about ritual, so, I looked up the definition.

According to Wikipedia, "a ritual is a set of actions, performed mainly for their symbolic value. It may be prescribed by a religion or by the traditions of a community."

What is "symbolic value?" Maybe, the "symbolic value" is a means of spiritual expression and connection open to those who have a spiritual life and who understand the symbolic meaning.

The Oxford dictionary says ritual is "a prescribed order for performing a ritual ceremony, especially one characteristic of a particular religion or Church."

I think my son meant by "a whole lot of ritual" was a meaningless thing that you don't understand, tests your energy and patience, and makes you feel like a dried up thistle bush when you're finished.

In an Episcopal Church service, there is a certain order, there are words and meaning for each thing we do, and there are symbols.

I find it comforting that the service is conducted in a somewhat predictable order. It varies depending on what season you're in but not much and the components that get moved generally stay the same. Sometimes, something gets added like the Decalogue (ten commandments) that shows up during Lent.

The words of worship, prayers, confession of sins, and communion come from the Bible. The more you read and study the Bible, the more the words in an Episcopal Church service are meaningful. The worship is participatory rather than performed. Participating makes you involved and being involved doing something you understand is meaningful and impacting.

The symbols in an Episcopal Church service are symbols used in Christian Churches universally: kneeling, the cross, oil, water, bread, and wine. I understand these symbols enough so that they are meaningful to me as I participate my way through the service with my heart oriented toward God.

Taken together, the order, words, and symbols combine as I participate in worship with fellow believers to create a beautiful, meaningful, and impacting worship experience. When we're finished, I feel quiet, joy, comfort, and assurance; and, I sense Christ's presence. It's slower and quieter than other churches; but, is it less meaningful? Not for me. Understanding, faith, and sincerity are essential. Ritual is empty for those who don't believe enough to feel comfortable participating in what's going on. No one likes doing something that doesn't make sense to them.

My family went to the Methodist Church growing up. My father dozed off in Church a lot. One day, I noticed an inscription carved in the table near the alter which read, "Do this in remembrance of me." I was around ten years old at the time and I asked my father what that meant. He replied, "Someone gave that table to the church and they wanted to be remembered so they wrote that there." I bet he wouldn't have fallen asleep so often in church if he really knew what that inscription meant.

G. K. Chesterton wrote a great passage on ritual in Heretics. It's a little long for a blog, but I think it's worthwhile ending with it anyway. He wrote it in 1905 so you might not be familiar with everything he refers to, but don't worry, that doesn't interfere with the gist of what he's saying. I particularly like the last paragraph but everything before builds up to it so I had to include that too.

...humanity is divided into conscious ritualists and unconscious ritualists. The curious thing is...that it is the conscious ritualism which is comparatively simple, the unconscious ritual which is really heavy and complicated. The ritual which is comparatively rude and straightforward is the ritual which people call "ritualistic." It consists of plain things like bread and wine and fire, and men falling on their faces. But the ritual which is really complex, and many coloured, and elaborate, and needlessly formal, is the ritual which people enact without knowing it. It consists not of plain things like wine and fire, but of really peculiar, and local, and exceptional, and ingenious things—things like door-mats, and door-knockers, and electric bells, and silk hats, and white ties, and shiny cards, and confetti. The truth is that the modern man scarcely ever gets back to very old and simple things except when he is performing some religious mummery. The modern man can hardly get away from ritual except by entering a ritualistic church. In the case of these old and mystical formalities we can at least say that the ritual is not mere ritual; that the symbols employed are in most cases symbols which belong to a primary human poetry. The most ferocious opponent of the Christian ceremonials must admit that if Catholicism had not instituted the bread and wine, somebody else would most probably have done so. Any one with a poetical instinct will admit that to the ordinary human instinct bread symbolizes something which cannot very easily be symbolized otherwise; that wine, to the ordinary human instinct, symbolizes something which cannot very easily be symbolized otherwise. But white ties in the evening are ritual, and nothing else but ritual. No one would pretend that white ties in the evening are primary and poetical. Nobody would maintain that the ordinary human instinct would in any age or country tend to symbolize the idea of evening by a white necktie. Rather, the ordinary human instinct would, I imagine, tend to symbolize evening by cravats with some of the colours of the sunset, not white neckties, but tawny or crimson neckties—neckties of purple or olive, or some darkened gold. Mr. J. A. Kensit, for example, is under the impression that he is not a ritualist. But the daily life of Mr. J. A. Kensit, like that of any ordinary modern man, is, as a matter of fact, one continual and compressed catalogue of mystical mummery and flummery. To take one instance out of an inevitable hundred: I imagine that Mr. Kensit takes off his hat to a lady; and what can be more solemn and absurd, considered in the abstract, than, symbolizing the existence of the other sex by taking off a portion of your clothing and waving it in the air? This, I repeat, is not a natural and primitive symbol, like fire or food. A man might just as well have to take off his waistcoat to a lady; and if a man, by the social ritual of his civilization, had to take off his waistcoat to a lady, every chivalrous and sensible man would take off his waistcoat to a lady. In short, Mr. Kensit, and those who agree with him, may think, and quite sincerely think, that men give too much incense and ceremonial to their adoration of the other world. But nobody thinks that he can give too much incense and ceremonial to the adoration of this world.
All men, then, are ritualists, but are either conscious or unconscious ritualists. The conscious ritualists are generally satisfied with a few very simple and elementary signs; the unconscious ritualists are not satisfied with anything short of the whole of human life, being almost insanely ritualistic. The first is called a ritualist because he invents and remembers one rite; the other is called an anti-ritualist because he obeys and forgets a thousand.

Chesterton, G. K. (Gilbert Keith) (2011-03-30). Heretics (Kindle Locations 1978-2003). Kindle Edition.

Prayer for Wednesday, July 27.

O God help me to be good today even though I feel good.
While Man's desires and aspirations stir,
He cannot choose but err.
From Goethe's Faust where The Lord is speaking to Mephistopheles.

When I feel good, my desires and aspirations stir and I relate to the erring. I'm not as thoughtful when I'm feeling good. If I'm not careful, I carelessly tease others, make wrong decisions, and do not give other people proper consideration; all without any ill will toward anyone.

Remembering My Mentors

I was thinking about people I admired at different companies where I've worked. One individual was an attorney who had steady strength and an upbeat demeanor. He never said anything negative. When you said something to him, he would pause to really understand you. I remember saying something to him I didn't think through. Then, I had to stand there thinking about what a stupid thing I said while waiting for him to respond. He responded kindly, but I became more committed to thinking before speaking.

I remember seeing him in his office calmly going through a stack of clinical trial agreements. He may have been bored out of his mind at times but he never showed it. Many jobs have a repetitive aspect. He would get through repetitive tasks without making them seem trivial. He was master of the task, master of himself, and a leader. I looked up to him.

I remember another individual who was the head of a research laboratory studying lupus. He made significant scientific contributions and wrote many papers that were published in prestigious journals. I remember weekly laboratory meetings. Many researchers were post docs; young, ambitious, bright minds, from all over the world, taking the next step after receiving their Ph.D.'s.

There were always unspoken questions floating around the room. The post docs wanted to impress and were afraid of appearing stupid. We couldn't have an effective meeting with that going on. The head of the lab was from Greece and he would ask the group in his thick Greek accent the most basic questions everyone was afraid to ask. They would look at each other as if they couldn't believe how ignorant he was. Then, their eyes would lighten in an oooh and Ahhh moment as they finally got the point they never considered because it was buried in something simple. He expressed a unique confidence and fearlessness I hadn't considered before. His leadership got everyone to discuss what they needed to discuss. I miss those meetings, his insight, and his way with people.

Now, I'm far from those places and my job is different. Distance makes me realize that time, place, and their roles weren't essential to who they were. Those things gave them opportunities. Their character transcended all that.

An Unexpected Journey: Finding New Landmarks in a Sea of Change

I had a job interview last Friday for an independent insurance company selling insurance an a commission only basis. This is not the logical career progression I envisioned when I lived in San Diego.

I worked at the Scripps Aquarium and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography while attending the University of California, San Diego where I earned a B.S. in Molecular Biology. In my last year of college, I got a job at The Scripps Research Institute as a research technician.

I liked my job as a research technician but it was lonely at times and I was concerned about limited career options. I was a guy with a B.S. in a sea of PhDs. Instead of getting a Ph.D., I went to law school. Out of law school, I went to work for Agouron Pharmaceuticals, a small biotech company that was acquired by Warner Lambert that was later acquired by Pfizer.

I stayed on as a contracts attorney for Pfizer. I liked my job, the people I worked with, and the pay. The next logical step was to take the patent bar which would allow me to prosecute patents and put me into a position to draft and negotiate licensing agreements.

However, my brother living in Madison, Mississippi, began discussing a franchising opportunity with Cups, an Espresso Cafe, a successful family owned coffee company with several locations in Jackson, Mississippi. The discussions became more concrete and my brother asked me if I would move to Mississippi and be an owner/operator.

I liked my job, but the opportunity was still appealing. I was not married, my son was having problems, and all my family lived east of the Mississippi river. I thought the change would be good for my son and owning and running a business would be a good opportunity. In 2004, I moved to Mississippi.

In a short period of time, we opened four locations and I managed all of them. The first location we opened was in Madison and it lost money. I had nothing to do with that location's selection or build out. However, I'm not sure I would have done anything differently. We decided to sell it and had a buyer. However, they ran it into the ground while operating under a transitional management agreement. In the end, all we could do was close the location and stop the bleeding.

The Brandon coffee shop was located too far away to properly manage along with our three other locations. We sold that location breaking even on the deal. We sold the unprofitable hospital kiosk and continued running the successful kiosk until we sold it in 2011. In baseball terms, we struck out with two locations, walked on the third, and hit a double with the fourth.

Looking back, I don't think my brother was prepared to evaluate a business opportunity and should have hired an accountant to look at the numbers initially. He didn't ask help from anyone. He made pro-formas from Excel spreadsheets instead and they promised certain success.

I reviewed the franchise agreement from San Diego for awhile but he got tired of hearing about potential issues and stopped asking my opinion. I learned that an attorney in Mississippi also reviewed the agreement and expressed concerns. My brother ignored him too and ended up signing the contract "as is."

Not long after signing the franchise agreement, he opened the back of his Yukon just when a gust of wind came along and it blew away the unfastened contract laying in the back. He managed to hastily gather most of it up.

I wouldn't recommend trying to run a business without a solid accounting background which I didn't have. You also need to know a few things about managing people, advertising, and keeping up with inventory. This is all behind the scenes as you're mastering your product and delivering great customer service. There are so many things you need to know cold when you jump into running a business. When you're in the start-up phase, pausing to pick up knowledge you should already know is difficult.

Business challenges, lack of income, and culture shock were more stressful than I imagined. My brother who never left his job or career path just wanted out. He made me promises so I would stay to make it work that he never fulfilled.

He had lost enough money. His four children needed their college accounts funded and his wife was not aware of the promises he made. However, I couldn't just abandon the only boat that kept me afloat (somewhat). I was trapped. I went through a time I felt resentment toward my brother and he went through a time where he didn't have the time to see me despite only working one week a month.

What started as a career change, became a spiritual journey. Finding a spiritual perspective was the only meaningful perspective I could find after losing the objects I had used to chart my course and triangulate my progress. I have to find meaning and self esteem now apart from a career. You can't see what things mean to you until they're gone; and then you find those things didn't mean to you what they should have. Maybe I was close, but I was off.

The gentlemen interviewing me said, "You have to admit, your resume is a little odd." I went from from research, to law, to business owner, to working for Upton Tire Pros; all without committing a crime or having a drinking problem. That is odd.

I must forgive my brother, take responsibility for my own mistakes, and keep swimming. Everyone's journey becomes a spiritual journey eventually. When I die, my actions will be my own and my brother's will be his own. Each of us has to find God's mercy one on one. In the end, it will be us and God only because of his mercy. Unforgiveness will be a foreign commodity in heaven and completely unwelcome there. You can't take your unforgiveness to heaven with you. I'm getting rid of mine now.

In the meantime, here's what I'm going to do.

Ecclesiastes 9:10 - Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.

Proverbs 14:23 - In all labour there is profit: but the talk of the lips tendeth only to penury.