Seminary Update

A couple of weeks ago, I finished my fifth semester as a seminary student, and over the holidays, I received my final grades for the two courses I took. In Congregational Spiritual Formation, the larger of the two classes, I received an A-, and in Personal and Corporate Disciplines, I received an A. This gives me a GPA of 3.90. I am excited about this for a couple of reasons. First, it means that I have thus far been successful in this whole seminary thing. That is significant because one of my primary concerns going in was that I would not have the capacity to succeed at the graduate level while balancing full-time vocational ministry. And second, one of my biggest regrets from high school and especially my undergraduate studies was that I did not fully apply myself to my studies. The result of this was that, when I graduated from college, I missed receiving honors by (as I recall) .03. I will always know that, had I applied myself just a little bit more, especially during the first semester of that Literature course, I would have walked with a cord around my neck (in a good way). A GPA of 3.90, then, is vindication! Continue reading ‘Seminary Update’


I Went for a Run Today

I went for a run today. I’ve been trying to get back into running regularly over the last several weeks, but I will admit that it has been tough. Today as I walked out the door a little after 7:30 am, I was hit by a wall of heat and humidity which I knew immediately would make the run more challenging. For a moment, I even considered changing my route and running a shorter distance, closer to home, but as I reached the sidewalk in front of my house and started jogging, I resolved to go my usual route.

I love my usual running route. A shade longer than a 5K, it goes down a great hill, runs through a beautiful greenway, past a scenic lake dotted with ducks and herons and such, then along the Des Moines River, through some woods (which are still flooded from the wet spring and last week’s flash floods), and back up the main drag through the heart of my neighborhood. Along the way on any given day, you may see numerous species of birds, rabbits, squirrels, woodchucks, turkey, and deer. It’s also quiet. Yes, you can hear the distant rumble of trucks on the interstate, the buzz of an occasional airplane or helicopter, and even on occasion the purr of a boat meandering up the river, but you can also hear the birds singing, the squirrels playing, and the deer snorting at passersby intruding upon their munching.

This morning, one of the reasons I so wanted to take this route was that, for about a half mile, the path runs alongside the Tai Village. Originally intended to be a place for the Tai Dam people, originally from China, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand, to settle in Iowa, the Tai Village today consists of a cultural center, a few pavilions and gazebos, and the aforementioned lake. Every year during Labor Day weekend, the Tai Village hosts a festival celebrating their culture and others who have found refuge in our little part of the world.

This is why I was so eager to run this route today. You see, the Tai Dam people and many others would not be my neighbors if not for the work of one man, Robert D. Ray. Ray was many things over his long and storied career. Some of the things in his biography which struck me were the fact that he was the head of the Republican Party in Iowa. He was elected five times to serve as governor of the state of Iowa, and this was no small thing considering he was a staunch conservative serving during the social upheaval of the 60’s and 70’s, not to mention the Watergate scandal which rocked the public’s trust in government and the Republican Party. And in the midst of all this, Bob Ray lived and led in such a way that, in the wake of his passing this weekend, people on both sides the proverbial aisle have delivered tributes to him.

This is striking, particularly in today’s political and ideological polarization, and it compels me to wonder what it was that led even those at the opposite end of the political spectrum to respect and honor this man. And I think I find three things.

First, Ray was a man of unimpeachable character. The Des Moines Register described the conservative Republican as “quiet, humble and thoughtful, yet confident in his deeply held beliefs with the courage to act.” Those who knew him best described Ray’s leadership as open, honest, moral, and ethical, but what has struck me most were the words of David Oman, who served as Ray’s chief of staff: “That’s how he lived and that’s how he led” (source: Simply put, Bob Ray was, by all accounts, a man of character, both in and out of the public spotlight, and that was clearly the primary reason he is today so widely respected. We would do well to heed this observation! Yet too often, we attempt to separate the public and private, insisting that we can be honorable in one sphere without having to be so in the other. If there is one lesson we must take from Robert Ray, as leaders and as people, it is that we must be people of unimpeachable character.

Second, Ray was more concerned with what was right than what was politically expedient. The Tai Dam people are a tremendous case in point. Today, we hear Republicans clamoring for walls and restrictions on immigration, but in 1975, as communism consolidated its hold on Vietnam and Laos and the Tai Dam, who had stood firmly against communism, feared reprisals, it was the Republican Bob Ray who went to President Ford seeking permission to resettle them in Iowa. He then helped form Iowa SHARES, a charity which raised $500,000 to help refugees in Thailand. In gratitude for his work on their behalf, the Tai Village named its cultural center in Ray’s honor, and Ray’s efforts laid the groundwork for many other groups of refugees displaced from places around the globe to find a new home in our community. And our community is better for it. We would do well to heed this observation as well! But instead of considering the situation and responding with right, how often do we listen to the sound bytes of pundits whose sole motivation is to rally votes? This is not to say that we should not have border security and immigration law! But it is to say that it is sometimes important – nay, imperative – that we step back, consider the bigger picture, and do the right thing rather than that which merely conforms with what our political affiliation tells us. Ray saw people in need, even on the far side of the world, and he endeavored to help. I dare say we must do the same!

Finally, one of the most impressive tributes to Ray which I have read in the last couple days was written by a woman who once debated him. Ray was staunchly conservative (read that, pro-life), and this woman was a leader of Planned Parenthood. There was no way the two were going to agree, and yet she recounted how their impromptu debate – which happened while they were both laid over in an airport terminal – was respectful and even warm. And at the end, she walked away from the exchange with an appreciation for both his position and the man. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out the application here. Watch the news for a few minutes, listen to talk radio, or even glance at Facebook, and it is plain to see that our discourse is dominated by vitriolic polemics which do little to convince anyone of anything and even less to reconcile. As a result, our culture is becoming increasingly polarized, both politically and ideologically. Some of this is inevitable. St. Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, “There must, indeed, be factions among you, so that those who are approved may be recognized among you” (1 Corinthians 11:19 HCSB2009). But Paul also exhorted these same Corinthians to embrace a “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5). How can we have any hope of reconciliation, or even cooperation, if we’re too busy burning bridges with incendiary rhetoric and inflammatory discourse? It is interesting that Paul held no illusion that the church at Corinth would ever be completely uniform. Indeed, he advocated that their diversity was an essential strength! He advocated instead for unity, where all the different parts and pieces were committed to the same basic purpose and therefore pulling in the same general direction. And what was that purpose? The author of the Pledge of the Allegiance figured it out: “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Despite all our differences, we must be committed to liberty and justice for everyone. American. Tai Dam. Syrian. Mexican. Rich. Poor. Male. Female. Black. White. Old. Young. Unborn. We can have honest debates about how to best accomplish that. But we must never lost sight of the fact that we’re in this together, and so we must always engage those debates in a respectful and even warm way.

Robert D. Ray will probably never be a household name beyond the bounds of Iowa. But his life and his leadership have left a precedent for which we must all strive.

Seminary Update

It has been several weeks since the spring semester of seminary concluded, but I haven’t sat down to provide an update. This past semester, I was enrolled in Christian Proclamation and Mentoring & Spiritual Direction. In both classes, I received an A.

In Christian Proclamation, we examined a variety of styles of preaching, the process of preparing a sermon, and the theology of preaching. We prepared several sermons and shared one with the class. (In case you’re wondering, the message I turned in was called “Not Done Yet,” out of Genesis 2. You can watch it here: Christian Proclamation was challenging on a couple of levels. First, I was challenged to preach outside of my proverbial box. In fact, the message I submitted to the class was outside of my normal style. Second, the class itself was challenging in the way it was organized. I think if I was organizing a course on preaching, I would start with the preparation process, instructing students to exegete a theology of preaching. Then I would move into doing exegesis on particular topics and passages to prepare sermon outlines and start preaching. As it was, we started with the preaching, then worked on the exegesis and theology; the class was organized almost exactly the opposite of how I would have done it. Of course, I am not the expert (in either preaching or teaching!), so there may be a reason for all of this that I was missing. Third, the course was challenging in that there was an unplanned change of faculty just as we approached the end. This introduced an element of uncertainty and stress for the entire class, and also for the dean who stepped in to finish the course. I am therefore grateful to both Dr. Joy Moore and Dr. Absom Joseph for another tremendous course.

In Mentoring & Spiritual Direction, we explored the process of forging a mentoring relationship from both sides. Essentially, the mentor’s role is to help the mentee recognize what God has been doing in his/her life. The mentee’s job is to make the time and space necessary to discover the same. To be honest, I found this class quite enlightening. Namely, it helped me to understand some purposes and methods that, despite years of reading and practicing, had yet eluded me. Again, I will not profess to be an expert in mentoring, but I am hopeful that this new understanding will help me be more effective in the future. Once again, though, I must confess a degree of confusion. Namely, given the essential role of mentoring throughout the entire MDiv process, I find myself wondering why this class – which covers choosing a mentor and the basic purposes of a mentoring relationship – was not the first spiritual formation course of the program.

With these two courses completed, I am now two semesters, six courses, from the completion of the MDiv core. In addition to these courses, I have four electives to complete. Three of these electives are dictated by my church health and revitalization specialization, while the fourth is a true elective: I can choose what I want to study. I have been advised that I should take at least one of these as an independent study, and I am working to figure out what that will look like.

It seems like yesterday that this whole MDiv process started. Now, it seems strange to see that the end is coming into sight!

PHP Zen Cart SSL Connect Error: Mystery Solved

Warning: Geek speak ahead.

For many years, I have done web development as a hobby and side income. Since I’ve been in seminary, I have dramatically curtailed this activity, but I do still help people out. And I have a couple of clients that I continue to maintain. This week, one of these clients had a problem. Their website, an online store using Zen Cart, was suddenly reporting that it could not communicate with the credit card company (Linkpoint / First Data).

The first thing I did when I received this report was to check my spam filter for the error reports. When I found it, I was stumped: all it contained was a generic cURL error: 35 – SSL Connect error. This said that something went wrong when the script was trying to contact the credit card processor’s secure server, but it didn’t really tell me what.

With nothing more to go on, my first suspicion was outdated software. Indeed, Zen Cart told me that we were one version behind. So I updated that. Nothing.

My second suspicion was a corrupt setting. So I rooted through the settings and confirmed that everything was correct. Then I thought it was perhaps a momentary blip. So I waited a day to see if the error would clear. It didn’t.

With still no information to go on, I began to research the issue. I found several places online that talked about this message. Some talked about needing to update an SSL certificate. Others talked about checking server and port settings. Still others talked about needing to update PHP and a number of other things. None of them specifically dealt with Zen Cart and the Linkpoint payment module. Worse, the wide variety of diagnoses confirmed that this was a very generic error message: no help there.

I reached out to the hosting company. Their support was… underwhelming. The first person I chatted with never grasped that the problem was not between the end user and the server. Despite repeated attempts to explain the situation, they kept telling me that my SSL certificate was fine and they saw no errors on the website. The second person with whom I chatted dug a little deeper, checking to make sure that the server could communicate via the required port (i.e., 1129). Unfortunately, before that process was completed, something happened to our connection, and we got cut off.

At this point, I attempted to submit a support ticket rather than use the live chat. Unfortunately, the hosting company has apparently done away with support tickets and refers everything to live chat. I will probably be searching for a new hosting company going forward.

Finally yesterday, I was able to chat with a third support representative at the hosting company. This agent worked with me to confirm that the server was in fact able to communicate via port 1129. This, however, left me back at square one: not knowing the problem.

I asked the client to reach out to his bank. Their local banker referred us to their merchant support services and the credit card processing team. In the meantime, I kept researching.

And that’s when we struck gold. A single post on the Zen Cart support forum, so new that it had not yet been indexed by Google, described our exact problem. And the solution: line 322 in /includes/modules/payment/linkpoint_api/class.linkpoint_api.php:

curl_setopt ($ch, CURLOPT_SSLVERSION, 3);

This line specified that cURL should use SSL v3 (aka, TLS) to communicate with the Linkpoint servers. This version of SSL has been compromised for several years, but the Linkpoint payment module was apparently never updated. It would seem that on or about February 14, Linkpoint grew tired of waiting and shut it down. The solution, then, was simple: comment out line 322 and allow cURL to negotiate with the host which SSL version to use.

And just like that, the problem was solved.

I don’t offer this here to trumpet my own horn. Rather, I offer it in the hopes of making life for some other webdev a little bit easier! Happy coding!

Winter 2017 seminary update

As my friends and family well know, I have been pursuing a Master of Divinity degree through Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University. Early this morning, I received the final grades for Fall 2017, and I am pleased to report that I have passed both Christian Worship and Goal Setting & Accountability.

Continue reading ‘Winter 2017 seminary update’

A day in the life

I’m waiting for a video to upload, so I thought I would take a few minutes to jot some stuff down. A couple of pastor friends have shared a meme asking people to share in gif images what they think a pastor’s week looks like. Well, I have been trained for many years of web development to disdain gifs, and I am a pastor. So I thought I would write about what a typical week in my life looks like. Continue reading ‘A day in the life’

Here we go again

It doesn’t seem possible, but it’s true: on Friday, seminary classes resume. This fall, I am enrolled in three classes: Christian Worship, Goal Setting and Accountability, and an independent study course entitled Church Revitalization Field Study. I have not had much time to examine the syllabi for any of these classes (other than to order books), but Christian Worship is set to cover a wide array of subjects relating to our worship of God. This is not to be confused with music; although music is a substantial component of worship, it is not synonymous with it. To equate music with worship would be to equate a tire with your car. Goal Setting and Accountability is a relatively self-explanatory title, and the Church Revitalization Field Study will involve me observing a professional church consultant assessing a church and drafting a strategy for its revitalization.

Continue reading ‘Here we go again’