Saturday, April 18, 2015

“Let us make…”

Couldn’t sleep the other night, or maybe it was early in the morning, and I recounted (silently, because the lovely Carol was still asleep) the creation story. As I’ve written elsewhere, it’s not a chronology, but the wording and sequencing give us important clues about the author’s purpose.

When I got to the creation of humanity, it hit me that the language changed:

3And God said, “Let there be light,”

6And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters …”

9And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered …”

11Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation …”

14And God said, “Let there be lights in the vault of the sky …”

20And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of the sky.”

24And God said, “Let the land produce living creatures …”

26Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, …

From Genesis 1
Seven times God commands something into existence, or commands the land or water to produce or teem with something. But in the eighth instance of this formula we get “Let us make mankind in our image…”

What does it mean? What is the writer (traditionally, Moses) trying to tell us here? If we read the rest of the paragraph, that might give us a clue.

26Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
27So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
28God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

The first thing that stands out is God himself taking responsibility for creating humanity, vs. telling the water to teem with living creatures (1:20) or the land to produce living creatures (1:24). Though in both those situations God is the one doing the creating, the sea and land seem almost to be intermediaries; they receive the commands to produce animate life.

When God creates mankind, however, no intermediary is mentioned; God simply says, “Let us make mankind…”—indeed, no command precedes the creation of humanity. After he creates humans, he gives us a few commands:

  1. Be fruitful and multiply
  2. Fill the earth
  3. And subdue it
  4. Rule over sea, air and land creatures
Commands 1 and 2 are shared with other creatures (the sea creatures at least); commands 3 and 4 are unique to us.

I suppose the point of this is to tell us that the creation of humanity was a special event. Though we are obviously created beings, God gave us a unique role, with unique responsibilities, and we have a unique relationship with him. It’s not just that we were created in his image; we are regents, ruling with his authority.

Wait—maybe that’s what “image” and “likeness” (verse 26) mean: besides being personal, rational, volitional, emotional beings (as Larry Crabb, Jr. says) we are also to be like him as we rule for him. Which is actually special enough.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

A programming surprise

Many years ago, when I was in graduate school and most of my colleagues hadn't even been born yet (!), I took a class on computer architecture. Part of the class involved programming a function/subroutine to compute the nth Fibonacci number in various machines' assembly languages.

Later, when I started interviewing candidates for programming jobs, I would ask them to describe their approach, and then write code to do that computation. I did that for some 25 years or so, but one day, I saw an answer I could not have imagined beforehand. Well, maybe if I had done a lot more reading and thinking about the mathematics of it I might have... Anyway, I wanted to share it with you so I wrote it down here.

Missing the Point in Hebrews 2—for many years

I don't know how many times I’ve read the first two chapters of Hebrews, but recently I saw something that I somehow missed for years. Chapter 1 begins without much of a preamble:
In the past God spoke to our fathers at various times and in various ways through the prophets but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his nature…
from Hebrews 1:1–3
The author then shows how Jesus is greater than the angels, and ends the chapter with this: “Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?” (Hebrews 1:14). And then chapter 2 begins with this:
We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. For if the word spoken by angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.

It is not to angels that he has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking.

Hebrews 2:1-5
I find these verses fascinating. First, we must pay careful attention “to what we have heard”—what’s that? In 1:2 we read that God has spoken by his Son, but for all these years when I read those verses I was focused on the Son and forgot to notice that when God spoke, he had something to say!

Fortunately the author tells us that what God has spoken was “a great salvation” (2:3). What salvation is this about? Well, it was something announced by the Lord (Jesus I think; God and the Holy Spirit are mentioned in the same sentence). What did the Lord announce? A few things come to mind:

  • The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe this good news! (Mark 1:15)
  • God loved the world so much that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life. (John 3:16, as you probably already knew.)
  • Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. (and more: Matthew 5:3-10)
  • Truly, truly, I say to you, she who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and is not condemned; she has passed out of death into life (John 5:24)
  • And I give eternal life to them, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My father, who has given them to me, greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the father's hand (John 10:something)
  • I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me will never die (John 11: something)
The author of Hebrews does answer one question for us definitively: if we wonder about this salvation—is it about this world, this life only, or [also] about the world to come?

I actually have wondered about this, because I had the impression that first-century Jews and Christians thought of “salvation” as mostly being about life here on earth. Didn't people want to make Jesus king by force? When Jesus healed people, didn't he say “your faith has saved you” (emphasis added)?

But the author of Hebrews is talking about the world to come, as we read in verse 5. And he gets even more explicit after that:

But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, crowned with glory an honor, because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.

Hebrews 2:9–11
Ah—another clue! Jesus suffered death, and by God’s grace he tasted death “for everyone.” Which reminds me of the Christmas carol, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”—particularly this part:
Mild he lays his glory by
Born that man no more may die
And here's another: God brings many persons to glory, and that too has something to do with salvation and with what Jesus suffered.

That salvation, wherein God brings us to glory and makes us holy, also has to do with becoming a sibling of our Lord Jesus. Come to think of it, that reminds me of Psalm 68:

A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows,
is God in his holy habitation.
God sets the lonely in families,
he leads out the prisoners to prosperity;
but the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land.
Psalm 68:5–6
Indeed, being rescued from loneliness, being adopted into a family where Jesus is my brother—not only for this world, but also for the world to come—that’s sounding pretty good.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Meditation: emptying my mind?

But her delight is in the law of the Lord
        And in his law she meditates day and night
She is like a tree planted by streams of water
 which yields its fruit in season
 and whose leaf does not wither.
Whatever she does prospers.
from Psalm 1
What meditation is the psalmist talking about? There are some kinds of meditation whose adherents try to empty their minds; this isn’t that. Someone told me that the word translated “meditate” has the sense of ruminating—chewing on something slowly; we meditate on something, as a cow chews and re-chews grass.

Joshua is instructed about the book of the Law: “Meditate on it day and night,” (Joshua 1) and do everything written in it. There’s a promise, viz., of prosperity and success, for those who meditate on and obey the teaching. In the New Testament, Paul says to let our minds dwell on whatever is good, honorable, right, pure, lovely and so on (Philippians 4). The Bible, in other words, tells us to meditate on God’s teaching, to give our hearts to what’s in heaven, to think about good things; it doesn’t commend the practice of emptying our minds.

But does the Bible forbid it? Is it actually harmful to try to think of nothing? Is it a sin? Or might it actually be beneficial?

Here’s what I make of it: Besides being told to think about certain things, we’re also told not to think about others: Don’t plot harm (Proverbs 3:29), don’t envy the violent (3:31), etc. It’s probably better to think of nothing, versus plotting evil against one’s neighbor.

In that sense, emptying one’s mind is neutral: it’s not actively bad (vs. scheming iniquity) nor actively good (cf. meditating on God’s goodness and love). Indeed, sometimes it may be positive: in Psalm 131 the writer talks about quieting himself like a weaned child. What’s a weaned child thinking about? Not much! And in Psalm 46, an oft-quoted verse instructs us to “Be still and know that I am God” (46:10).


Now there is a passage in the New Testament where Jesus talks about what happens when an evil spirit leaves a person and nothing takes its place. I read it and wondered if it might refer to emptying one’s mind. Here’s a possible interpretation: If I empty my mind of evil thoughts and don’t replace them by something else—meditating on Scriptures, say—then they may come back more powerfully than before. Here’s the parable:

“When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation.”
Matthew 12:41–45
After re-reading it in context, I don’t see how it could possibly mean that.

Here’s the situation: Jesus is talking with some hostile Pharisees and teachers of the law. They say Jesus is casting out demons “by Beelzebul, the prince of demons” (12:24). They demand a sign (12:38) from him. Jesus replies (12:39): “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” Jesus then explains that foreigners will condemn the current generation of Israelites because they listened to God’s message when it came to them, and the leaders of the Israelites (who really should know better) refuse to listen to Jesus.

The parable about impure spirits comes immediately after this. It’s from that, and the last sentence above (“wicked generation”) that I conclude that the parable is directed against those hostile to him. I did a quick search on my shelf and on the web, and the commentators think the parable refers to unrepentant Israelites and (by extension) others who hear Jesus and yet reject him.

Luke’s account is similar: though the sequencing isn’t exactly the same, Jesus gives the parable during a confrontation with people who say he’s driving out demons “[b]y Beelzebul, the prince of demons” (Luke 12:15) or testing him by asking for a sign from heaven (12:16).

So I don’t think this parable is warning followers of Jesus against being still (Psalm 46:10) or quieting oneself (as in Psalm 131).

But the Scriptures encourage us to take positive action with our thoughts, too: meditate on instructions from God (Psalm 1:2–3; Joshua 1:8), think about things that are true, honorable, right, pure, lovely (Philippians 4:8); devote ourselves to prayer and thanksgiving (Colossians 4:2ff).

Friday, February 27, 2015

Thoughts while watching the waves at Morro Strand S.B.

How did this beach look
        a century or millennium ago?
Did curlews and sandpipers
        chase and flee the ocean waves?
Did hawks soar
        and dip overhead?
How many generations of bipeds
        came and went?
How many empires were built,
        wars fought,
        libraries written
While these same waves washed
        onto this same stretch of sand?

And a century or millennium hence?

“Teach us to number our days,
        that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”        (Psalm 90:12)
“Generations come and generations go
        But the earth remains forever.”        (Ecclesiastes 1:4)

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

A high school math problem and Euler's formula

I was on my high school's math team in the early '70s, and in one contest there was a problem that stumped us. Basically it was this:
Find two numbers, not 0 or 1, such that each is the square of the other.
If you remember that there is such a thing as a complex number, the problem isn't hard. Trouble was, we had all forgotten about such things in the moment.

But what happened afterward was very interesting to me. I noticed that the solution involved complex numbers, and a particular kind of complex number: the kind with a "length" or "magnitude" of 1. Somehow I noticed what happens when you multiply such complex numbers together.

It was so much fun learning all that, and I was thinking about it again for some reason recently. So I wrote a bunch of stuff down. Not in blogger; this requires LaTeX. Some topics mentioned:

  • factoring
  • quadratic formula
  • addition formulas for sin and cos
  • matrix multiplication (2x2)
  • Maclaurin series (Taylor series centered at 0) This is the only part needing calculus.
  • "isomorphic" which just means that this thing is like that thing and behaves in the same way. Probably I misuse the word somewhere.
It sure was fun to learn that stuff, and fun to think about it again and write some of it down.

I've uploaded my little paper here.

Monday, February 23, 2015

A sermon we'll never hear at MPPC

I picked up the lovely Carol in Los Angeles; she’d attended a conference on the USC campus. We looked at a list of nearby congregations and selected Abundant Life, a mile or two away. Little did we know what awaited us.

I couldn’t see any on-street parking, but the church’s parking lot was nearly empty. An attendant told us to park anywhere. When we walked into the building, we were greeted warmly and asked whom we were visiting.

“We found you on the website,” I said. Our greeter recovered quickly and indicated the sanctuary. We sat near the back, but someone urged us to move a few rows forward, which was fine.

I'll skip over the music (it was great) and the affirmation of faith (I affirmed it with a clear conscience), because I want to tell you about the sermon, which was on the theme of “Staying alive.” It's really important to remember that Jesus died for us to demonstrate his love for us, the preacher said. One consequence is that I don't need to prove my devotion to God by having a death wish. The first Scripture was from Matthew 5:

“Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison…
Matthew 5:25 (NIV)
“Point number one,” the preacher said: “Avoid the system. Avoid the system. Don’t give the system an excuse to pull you in. Fix that taillight. Stop drinking and driving. Stop driving with a suspended license.” Because the system can throw you into prison. The system can literally kill you.

To overcome injustice, the preacher said, we need to pray hard enough, and work hard enough, and vote strong enough to bring about changes. But you can't vote if you're dead!

The sermon was addressed to people of color, which most of the congregation were. There might have been three white people (including the lovely Carol) in the room, and one east Asian (me). All of us were aware that the system isn't as fair or color-blind as we would like it to be. But this was probably the first time that I felt keenly my privileged status among my oppressed brothers and sisters. Rodney King was beaten by L.A. police officers just a few blocks from where we were sitting.

The preacher described having a gun held to his head and being ordered to lie down on his face on the wet floor of a car-wash. He had a suit on, and a clerical collar, and as he lay there, hands zip-tied behind his back, he was yelling at a young hot-head, the son of a parishioner, to “Just chill!” because whatever he wanted wasn't worth dying for; policemen in riot gear were ready to kill that young man.

Thank the Lord, everybody survived that day. But this is a broken world, and not all incidents end peacefully like that.

The preacher went on to talk about how we need to submit to institutions, because God (a God of order, not disorder) ordained these institutions. Which is not to say, he added, that everybody in a position of power actually needs to be there! We need to submit anyway.

He also described what it means to submit: the Greek word being ὑποτάσσω (hoo-poh-tahs-soh) which means to “come up under.” He pointed out a parishioner who was about to join the Marines; he's going to learn about submission big-time. This doesn't mean that his superiors in the Marines are perfect or always right, but he has to be under them.

It's important sometimes, he said, to submit to your boss at work; to keep that job, even though your boss isn't perfect and may not always be right or treat you right. Sometimes, you need to just. Shut. Up.

Red or yellow, black or white (and I might add, young or old), some of us need to hear that, to remember it and take it to heart.

Well, I don't want to recap the entire sermon, but I did want to share the experience with you. I was very glad we went, happy to have fellowship with brothers and sisters whose lives are very different from mine.