Sunday, December 10, 2017

A few thoughts from when my home was invaded by adolescents

That was a long time ago, but I'm thinking now about a couple of specific things we heard at the girls’ school in those days.

One was a seminar titled something like “When an Adolescent Invades Your Home”—I mentioned it in this post (written when both girls were in college). The presenter said that for quite a few years, children live largely unconsciously, with the lights off (he turned off the classroom lights to illustrate). Then, he said, a wonderful thing starts to happen: the lights come on (he flipped the switch to on) for a while (he turned the lights off). He didn't play with the switch much longer, but we got the idea.

This rang true, as I remembered doing really stupid things when I was younger, and yes I do feel very fortunate to be alive. Even today, the lights aren’t on for me all the time… but enough about me :). The point, though, is that for junior high kids (and even high school kids), the lights aren’t always on.

Another thing from that seminar iirc is that the onset of puberty has been happening earlier and earlier in the United States. One guess is that it's related to the hormones we feed to livestock to get them to mature faster. Anyway, the lights aren’t coming on necessarily sooner, but the hormones are raging earlier. So it’s more challenging now than it was a half-century ago.

The other thing that stuck in my mind was something their junior-high school Principal said in a graduation speech (probably in 2005). As parents, we have many roles with our kids. We supervise, guide, teach them, coach them, and so on. But what stuck in my mind was his comment that from here on out it’s mostly cheerleading; by now their habits are largely already set. From here on out (this was 8th grade graduation), we are not going to change their minds about many things, or get them to develop or drop many habits.

In other words, the time for most (key word, that: most) of that has already passed. Which is actually kind of scary, considering that the lights are still off a fair amount of the time and that their hormones are probably raging more than ours were at their age.

But then nobody said it would be easy.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

What should the church think about nontraditional sexuality?

(title updated 2017-12-10)
Some years ago, when I was recruiting the next cohort of elders to be on our church’s board, I spoke with a sister I’ll call “Dorcas,” whom I thought eminently qualified. She declined, citing Tim Keller’s teaching that women are forbidden from the office of elder. I was quite surprised at Dorcas’s demurral, but wondered whether my ideas were more enlightened than hers, or just less pure.

Though I hate to disagree with Dr. Keller, I nevertheless undertook my own study of the issue, consulting other writers as well as the Scriptures. You can see the results here on my blog.

Fast forward to about a year ago, when my younger daughter Sheri asked me to consider a study regarding the Bible’s teaching about homosexuality. Was the traditional interpretation in fact correct, and is the 21st-century Church drifting away from the truth? Alternately, have we been wrong all this time, as we were about slavery for example, and are we due for a change?

Before going into my study and its results, I’ll summarize my understanding of the issue when I started out. A few points, in no particular order:

  • In the beginning, God created humans male and female, as the Lord Jesus said in Matthew 19.
  • The Law (the first 5 books of what Christians today call the “Old Testament”) forbids various kinds of sexual activity; I blogged about one such prohibition back in 2007, when the One Year Bible’s daily reading included Leviticus 18.
  • Although Jesus affirmed some parts of the Law (Matthew 5:17ff), he revised other parts (Mark 7:5–7, 17–23). Hence it’s debatable whether the Old Testament’s gender-related prohibitions were confirmed vs. revised by Jesus. From my limited understanding it appeared to me that Jesus didn’t revise or amend any of those gender-related prohibitions.
  • The above notwithstanding, Jesus never directly addressed gender identity nor sexual activity (or attraction) between persons of the same gender.
  • It bears repeating here that Jesus did directly address sexual sins such as adultery, which he defined very broadly (Matthew 5:28); anger; covetousness; failure to care for the hungry, the alien, the prisoner, the sick. These sins are practiced very widely, even within the church—to our collective shame.
  • I remember a conversation I had at that time with a fellow elder on my church’s board. Based on my understanding of the Scriptures, I asserted that God would never punish sexual activity by eternity in hell. My fellow elder’s reply was something like: “I’m more concerned with how we treat them here on earth.”

    I’m glad that we were in agreement regarding ultimate destiny, but his comment influenced me in the intervening years in the way I think about the Christian life. Jesus did speak of the world to come, but he spoke a lot more about life here and now.

Also, around that time, I read
  • Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality by Jack Rogers;
  • Wesley Hill’s Washed and Waiting; and, some time later,
  • Justin Lee’s Torn.
The Rogers book I found wholly unconvincing at the time. I’m unsure what I’d think of it today.

Hill and Lee are gay men who have struggled with their orientation for many years. These brothers of mine desire to follow and obey and worship and serve God. They did not ask for their same-sex attraction; indeed, they sought to change their orientation. One passage in Washed and Waiting particularly touched me when I read it in 2011. Hill attended a wedding reception and got bulldozed into dancing with a young woman he knew slightly in college.

A couple of days later I explained to my friend Chris over breakfast what had happened. We danced, I said. I was with this beautiful girl. I was holding her hand and touching her back. Her dress was thin and showed every curve on her body, I said. I could feel her sweating through the dress, and, inches from her face, I could see every exquisite feature she had. “And, Chris,” I said, “I felt nothing. No attraction. No awakening or arousal of any kind. No sexual desire whatsoever.”

Chris nodded. He knows my situation backward and forward and wasn't fazed by what I was telling him.

“The worst of it,” I continued, “is that while I wasn’t attracted to this stunningly beautiful person who was my dance partner, I couldn’t stop looking at the guy dancing several feet away from me. I did notice him. I noticed his body, his moves. Chris,” I said, “I was attracted to this guy. All I could see and desire was another guy across the room while I’m dancing with this girl. This is so frustrating. This is what it means to be gay, and I would give anything to change it!” (133)

Poignant and painful, these paragraphs gave me a little bit of a picture of what it’s like to have only same-sex attraction. As I paged through the book, searching for this passage, I confirmed my impression that Hill’s view is the traditional one.

I read Lee’s book a year or two later, shortly after it came out late in 2012. As Hill gave me an idea what it’s like to have same-sex attraction, Torn gave me a picture of what it’s like to be in the Church as a gay man. As one might expect, it’s a mixed bag. Lee has some prescriptions for us all, whether or not we take the traditional view on same-sex attraction. I think these steps would be very helpful, and I hope this little essay is a baby step forward.

One thing from Lee’s book that shocked and saddened me was his discovery that so-called “reparative therapy” has never actually worked—as far as his investigation was able to find. He quizzed people about successful case studies, but none seemed to exist. In other words, the whole thing was wishful thinking at first and a fraud later on. Whether you believe Lee, or some of the claims in Exodus International’s wikipedia article, the organization no longer exists.

When Sheri prodded me to undertake my current study, she pointed me at video lectures by Gushee (I’ve lost/forgotten the links), which the lovely Carol watched with me. These presentations discussed the experience of LGBT folks in the church; I’m sorry to say that overall we have not welcomed them and we have not loved them the way Jesus would have us to do—independent of whether certain kinds of sexual attraction and activity are (or aren’t) considered OK by God. In hindsight, it was appropriate that my current study began with the more important question, viz., how are we doing on that new command Jesus gave his disciples? “A new command I give you,” Jesus said: “That you love one another even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34–35).

That said, the question “What does God think about certain behaviors?” is still important, and to that end I’ll mention a few resources that I encountered this past year:

Brownson argues persuasively that neither the traditional interpretation (basically what I thought in 2013) nor revisionist interpretations (I think of Rogers, but it’s been several years since I actually read him so I’m not sure) are correct. He ends up pretty much saying what Loader says, but his argument is more comprehensive (it’s a book to Loader’s short essay). I’ll jot down a few things that I remember from it.
  • When we protestants read the Bible, we make all kinds of judgments about what we must follow vs. what we need not follow today, following various kinds of logic. So for example, we discard the prohibitions against bacon and shrimp not only because they’re delicious, but also because Jesus declared all foods clean. The Apostle Paul also wrote a lot about this in Romans and Colossians.
  • These arguments are not just about Old vs. New Testament commands, either; Jesus commended foot-washing. The Apostle Paul forbade braided hair and golden jewelry. He also commanded that men lift their hands when praying.
  • To determine whether a particular biblical precept or prohibition is normative for today, then, we engage the text with some kind of logic or another. These we hope are coherent and consistent, and are not based solely on what feels good vs. icky to us.
  • When we examine the prohibitions against sexual activity between two people of the same gender, we must try to understand how to interpret them. Are those commands like the Old Testament prohibitions of bacon and shrimp? Or the commands prohibiting sexual intercourse during a woman’s menstrual period?

    Alternately, are they like the New Testament commands to greet one another with a holy kiss, or to abstain from braids and jewelry? Or are they in the same vein as “Do not lie to one another”?

  • Romans 1 seems to condemn same-sex sexual activity, but if that’s the common-sense interpretation of Romans 1:25–32, what’s the meaning of “you who pass judgment do the same things” (2:1)? The same things: what same things?

    Brownson explains it better than I ever could, but his point is that in order to explain the flow of the argument in 1:25 onward, the explanation must also say what 2:1–4 means. The rhetorical style seems to be that in 1:27–32, Paul takes the part of certain moralists of the day. Then in 2:1 he takes a sharp turn and shows why his readers must not just nod in smug agreement with the previous several sentences.

The short version is, Brownson convinced me, and Loader’s essay is a terrific shorter summary of part of Brownson’s argument.

But more important than a list of what specific sexual behaviors are permissible between which specific partners—about which reasonable, diligent, devoted disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ disagree—is the question of how we treat our neighbors (the subject of second greatest command, which is like the first, Jesus said in Matthew 22:38–39) and how we treat one another (John 13).

And that, as a former manager used to say, is all I know.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

An eventful week; a grateful me

The younger ex-teen got married last weekend; it was a celebration of great joy—and also relief.

You see, Grandma Bessie (my mom) was planning to visit us, arriving Tuesday night. But rather than going to the airport, she went to the emergency room due to abdominal pain, severe and unrelenting. My mobile phone exploded with text messages. The phrase “aortic <something>” was heard. X-rays and CAT scans were discussed.

They had me at “aortic”; I started checking flights, but didn’t book anything until the medical folks settled on the diagnosis: aortic aneurysm. I clicked “Book this flight” for Alaska 837, SJC→HNL Wednesday morning.

Wednesday

Am I getting old, or was it just the stress, or have the seats gotten harder? Whatever it was, I was hurting by the time we landed. Inga picked me up and we went straight to Queen’s. Dr. Sato came in and advised Mom to get the endovascular aneurysm repair, maybe like the one decribed here on webmd.

As I heard the story, Mom had said she’d consider it; today the surgeon was recommending it. He itemized a bunch of risks, things that might happen during surgery. They’re not frequent, he said, but they do happen. I asked him what he would recommend for his own mother, if she had a similar condition. Surgery.

He told Mom of a past, younger patient of his. He recommended the surgery, she declined, she went home, the aneurysm ruptured, and she died the same day. Mom was sold, and Dr. Sato indicated that he’d try to do the endovascular aneurysm repair Thursday afternoon.

Then an anaesthesiologist came in, describing how the anaesthesia itself had risks (beyond the surgery), including death! My comment was, we don’t have many alternatives here.

Thursday

In the morning we heard the surgery would be at noon! I ran down to the hospital, having spent the night at “home,” and hung around until they shooed me out. I sat in the waiting room for a while, and then sister Donna said I could join her in pre-op. After some confusion, the nurse and I found each other, and she ushered me in to Mom’s area, where it was freezing. I was impressed by the keep-warm technology.

Mom was mightily bored by all this and kept dozing off, or maybe she just closed her eyes. Eventually they said they were really going to do the surgery, and I snapped a pic just as she was about to go to the “OR.” The photo is dated 1:57pm.

I went home for a nap, and Mom was done about 5:20pm. The surgery had gone well, I heard. I eventually figured out how to get to the surgical waiting room in QE Tower. Quite a few folks were there, sister Inga and nieces and nephew; several of them were still heading to California for the wedding.

They let me into the recovery area after a while, and I joined Donna there. Mom would have to lie flat for four hours, the first two with sandbags on her thighs, to discourage reopening of the surgical incisions (pokes, actually). She wasn’t too happy about that.

I held Mom’s hand for the next 3 hours or so, giving her Bible passages or praying or chatting or just sitting. At some point Donna took my parking ticket to a nurses’ station, where they stamped it for me. I would later find out that the afternoon’s parking would be on the house :).

At the 7:00pm shift change, the new nurse asked Mom if she knew where she was.

“Hospital,” she murmured.

“Do you remember the name of the hospital?”

“Queen’s.”

“Do you know what month and year it is?”

“October,” she croaked.

“And do you know remember the year?”

“Seventeen.” It was barely a whisper.

“Who are these people?” the nurse asked, indicating Donna and me.

“I don’t know!” she said. Very funny, Mom! The nurse wasn’t fooled for a moment.

Some other post-op procedures were needed. An X-ray for example. So the X-ray guy showed up after a while and said something about sitting her up. The nurses updated him on the situation; I didn’t have to tackle him.

Around 10pm the nurse moved her to a private room in QE tower. We were about to exit the elevator on the 8th floor when an EMERGENCY indicator lit up, the doors closed, and the elevator expressed back whence we came.

The doors opened to reveal a nurse with a surprised expression; he released the elevator, mumbling something about grabbing another one, and the elevator returned to the 8th floor. Our nurse explained that some ICU patients must be transported without delay immediately after surgery; they cannot wait.

Mom got situated and after a while, Donna suggested I go home. No argument from me on that.

Friday

The next morning, Dr. Sato dropped by Mom’s room to ask how she was doing. Any pain? Mom shook her head no.

He smiled. “See? Told you!”   He also said, “You can go home today as far as I’m concerned.” No medication needed, but Mom should take it easy the next couple of weeks.

I ran “home” so Jana could take me to the airport. (I had already packed my things.)

My return flight was uneventful, but all too long. Again my seat hurt. The lovely Carol picked me up late Friday night.

Saturday

I’d missed Friday afternoon’s rehearsal, but I was assured all I had to do was follow directions—always a challenge for me, but perhaps it would be OK this time.

Several friends of Peter and Sheri spoke at the ceremony; each one added a unique perspective, so that all of us present got glimpses of both bride and groom. I have to tell you that as much as I respected and esteemed Peter before the ceremony, his friends’ comments made me feel even happier to have him in our family. The celebration was intimate and meaningful and and God-honoring.

By the way, my nephew Keith unobtrusively live-streamed the ceremony; Mom and Donna and Jana and Mom’s great-grandchildren all could see it.

As I said at the reception, “It’s hard to be humble when Peter is your son-in-law!” Oh, and we “facetime”d with Mom at the reception. She looked happy.


I am a very grateful man today. I wasn’t quite in a panic Tuesday, but as I said several times, it was a little too exciting. Aortic aneurysms are often fatal; it was fortunate indeed that Mom had a lot of pain so that she would know to go to the hospital. And it was fortunate that the symptoms appeared before she came to California.

And now both my daughters have husbands that make it impossible for me to be humble.

And it’s also really hard to be ungrateful. My cup is full, even as the nest is empty.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Well, that’s weird: Fibonacci edition

About six years ago, I read a puzzle about Fibonacci numbers in CACM and tried to understand the solution, so when I recently saw on quora the question “Is every Fibonacci number divisible by 31 also divisible by 61?” I was interested enough to figure out (to my surprise) that indeed every one is: every 15th Fibonacci number is divisible by 61, but only every 30th is divisible by 31.

This I found unusual and amazing, and I wondered, for what other primes is this true? Naturally I wrote some Python.

#!/usr/bin/python -utt
# vim:et:sw=4

'''
Let f(n) be the nth Fibonacci number (f(0)=0, f(1)=1, f(n)=f(n-1)+f(n-2))
For prime p, let ff(p) be the smallest n such that p|f(n),
e.g. ff(3)=4 because f(4)=3

Now, what primes (p, p2) satisfy p>p2 but ff(p)<ff(p2) and ff(p)|ff(p2)?
'''
import sys

def main(maxx):
    '''
    Get primes up to /maxx/, and the first /maxx/ Fibonacci numbers,
    then check for the criteria described above.
    '''
    plist = prime_list(maxx)
    flist = fib_list(maxx)
    ff = dict()
    for p in plist:
        for n, f in enumerate(flist):
            if f >= p and f % p == 0:
               ff[p] = n        # e.g. since f(4) == 3, ff[3] = 4
               break
        else:
            print "Couldn't find fib which %d divides" % (p)
    # Now ff[p] is idx of 1st fib that p divides
    for idx, p in enumerate(plist):
        f = ff[p]
        for j, p2 in enumerate(plist[:idx]):
            # for p2 < p
            f2 = ff[p2]
            if f2 > f and f2 % f == 0:
                print 'f(%d) = %d and f(%d) = %d' % (p, f, p2, f2)
            
    sys.exit(0)

def prime_list(pmax):
    '''
    Return a list of prime numbers up to pmax (sloppy criterion)
    '''
    # First two nontrivial primes
    plist = [2, 3]
    # Look for further primes by formula p = 6k +/- 1 for some k
    for cseed in range(6, pmax, 6):
        cand1, cand2 = cseed - 1, cseed + 1
        for p in plist[2:]:
            # Zero a cand if another prime p>3 divides it.
            # Need not check p≤3 because of construction.
            if cand1 == cand2:
                # must both be zero
                break
            if cand1 and cand1 % p == 0:
                cand1 = 0
            if cand2 and cand2 % p == 0:
                cand2 = 0
        else:
            append_t(plist, cand1)
            append_t(plist, cand2)
    return plist

def append_t(alist, athing):
    '''
    Helper: append /athing/ to /alist/ but only if /athing/ is "true"
    '''
    if athing:
        alist.append(athing)


def fib_list(fmax):
    '''
    Return a list of the first /fmax/ Fibonacci numbers
    '''
    bak1, cur = 0, 1            # f(0)=0, f(1)=1
    flist = [bak1, cur]
    for n in range(2, fmax):
        bak1, cur = cur, cur + bak1
        flist.append(cur)
    assert flist[5] == 5        #print 'DEBUG:', 5, flist[5]
    #print 'DEBUG:', flist
    return flist

if __name__ == '__main__':
    maxx = 99
    if len(sys.argv) > 1:
        maxx = int(sys.argv[1])
    main(maxx)
Running it produces:
Collins-MacBook-Pro:fib31 collin$ ./pfib.py 
f(61) = 15 and f(31) = 30
f(89) = 11 and f(43) = 44
Collins-MacBook-Pro:fib31 collin$ 
Whoa, really? Every 11th prime is divisible by 89, but only every 44th is divisible by 43? H'm.
f(11)=89, f(22)=17711, f(33)=3524578, f(44)=701408733
Every one of those guys is divisible by 89, but only the last is divisible by 43. How weird is that? And from looking at the pattern of what happens to f(n) mod 89 as n increases, it's clear that indeed every 11th Fibonacci number is divisible by 89, and every 44th is divisible by 43.

If instead of 99 we say 199 or 299, what do we get?

Collins-MacBook-Pro:fib31 collin$ ./pfib.py 199
f(61) = 15 and f(31) = 30
f(89) = 11 and f(43) = 44
f(199) = 22 and f(43) = 44
Collins-MacBook-Pro:fib31 collin$ 
OK, I examined that one, and everything is as it seems. What if we go another 100?
Collins-MacBook-Pro:fib31 collin$ ./pfib.py 299
f(61) = 15 and f(31) = 30
f(89) = 11 and f(43) = 44
f(199) = 22 and f(43) = 44
f(211) = 42 and f(83) = 84
f(211) = 42 and f(167) = 168
f(229) = 114 and f(227) = 228
f(233) = 13 and f(79) = 78
f(233) = 13 and f(103) = 104
f(233) = 13 and f(131) = 130
f(281) = 28 and f(83) = 84
f(281) = 28 and f(167) = 168
f(281) = 28 and f(223) = 224
Collins-MacBook-Pro:fib31 collin$ 
Well, that was fun if not exactly insightful. Why so many from 200–299, compared to the range 1–199? But the upshot is, we could ask a number of other questions, like
  • Is every Fibonacci number that's divisible by 89 or 199 also divisible by 43? (Yes.)
  • Is every Fibonacci number that's divisible by 79 or 103 or 131 also divisible by 233? (Yes.)
and so on. No idea why, but there it is.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

What is our hope?

I recently came upon Mary Jo Balistreri's lyrical, poignant essay, At the Window, in Issue 13 (spring 2017) of Minerva Rising. Balistreri was 71 when she wrote the essay, speaking of the present and the past, of her dead grandsons and her dying daughter, and her own failing body.

I re-read the essay during a week when I learned of two deaths. I met Bill, who was about my age, in the early 1980s; I last saw him a few years ago in Yosemite. He died in an automobile accident earlier this month. The next day, Marshall, 71, perished in an airplane crash. I served with Marshall several years ago in the coffee and hospitality crew at our church's San Mateo site.

My mind turned toward my own future as these events, and Balistreri's essay, seeped into my consciousness. I reminded myself that every day is a gift, that life is uncertain. And I thought about hope. Yesterday morning, the lovely Carol read to me from Frederick Buechner's Secrets in the Dark (HarperCollins, 2006) [author's site]:

To remember the past is to see that we are here today by grace, that we have survived as a gift.

And what does that mean about the future? What do we have to hope for, you and I? Humanly speaking, we have only the human best to hope for: that we will live out our days in something like peace and the ones we love with us; that if our best dreams are never to come true, neither at least will our worst fears; that something we find to do with our lives will make some little difference for good somewhere; and that when our lives end we will be remembered a little while for the little good we did. That is our human hope.

op. cit. pp. 63–64, in “A Room Called Remember”
Buechner goes on to describe a better, fuller hope.
Then death shall be no more, neither shall there be any mourning or crying. Then shall my eyes behold him and not as a stranger. Then his Kingdom shall come at last and his will shall be done in us and through us and for us.
loc. cit.
This is hope indeed. We pray to God, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” but speaking for myself I often fail to do what I know to be his will. Love my enemies, pray for my persecutors? I have the hope that one day I'll be fully willing and able to do all that.

But for today, I put one foot in front of the other. I ask for help. I fall down. I get up. And I remember, or try to, what God has done in my life and in the world, and I hope.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Come to me, rev2

Is this a little easier to follow?
This is not exactly a continuation of an earlier post… well, maybe it is. Or it could be. I’m using it to explore the idea of Matthew 11:28-30 as a gospel invitation.

What was I doing in this Bible lecture? Well, actually I know how I got here—I tried to get a date with Doreen, but she got me to go to “Alpha” with her, then I found myself reading the… the New Testament for crying out loud!

Then I was hooked—not just on her, but on the subject; I mean I really wanted to understand all this. So when she invited me to a talk about the Good News of Jesus for Today (approximately), it sounded interesting enough that I didn’t even mind when she couldn’t make it at the last minute. Anyway, the lecture was starting.

“Jesus said, ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’ This invitation is the centerpiece and summary of Matthew’s gospel.”

That confused me. I mean, was that it? I heard several times in college and grad school that “All have sinned…” which I never liked much, but this guy was talking about a yoke?

“What makes us weary and burdened?” he went on. “What makes me weary is trying to manage other people’s opinions of me.” I could relate to that one.

“And what burdens do we carry?” he continued. “Jesus isn’t talking about rent and groceries. But there are burdens we really shouldn’t bear, things we worry about—things I worry about—that we need to set down,” he said.

I started making a mental list, which to be honest didn’t include world peace or a cure for AIDS; the issues, I’m embarrassed to say, were mostly about me. Affording a house, the next round of layoffs in the rumor mill, this sort of thing.


“So what did you think, Ray?” Jeff asked over a beer. I’d met him at Alpha, and wasn’t sure if he was like me, or if he already believed most of this.

“It’s more appealing than ‘You’re all sinners,’” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. “I mean, I don’t disagree with all that, but ‘Come to me’ is more, you know, inviting.”

OK, he did believe most of that. So I wondered aloud why he was here.

“Well,” he began, “I’ve been asking myself on and off the past few years, ‘What is the gospel?’ I mean, when Jesus preached the good news about 2,000 years ago, people were mostly really happy to hear it. What message would appeal that way to my friends and neighbors? Some years ago, I actually spent time knocking on people’s doors and asking them what they thought about Jesus. And if they let me, I’d explain the good news that although they were sinners, Jesus died for them. Results were, as they say, mixed.”

“Wow! You never struck me as one of them,” I said. He chuckled a bit—he didn’t seem embarrassed at all. “So you still believe that, but you’re wondering how to market it better? I mean, ‘Come to me…’ and ‘All you guys are sinners’ sound like they came from different books.”

Jeff had an answer for that one. “Jesus did say ‘Come to me…’ but he also said that looking on a woman to lust after her was committing adultery in your heart. And that being angry at someone was like killing them. He also said to love your enemies. When I put all that together, I get the picture that we are all sinners. So he effectively said that ‘sinners’ thing too. Jesus healed a paralyzed man, but before he healed him, he said to him, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ This got him into some trouble with the religious authorities of his day. He definitely did it on purpose.”

I remembered that story. “Didn’t he say something like ‘So that you guys know I have authority to forgive sins’?”

“Yes he did! He made a big deal about having that power.” He was on a roll now. “Here’s how the thing about sinners ties in. If I don’t know that my sins are forgiven, I’ll always be insecure, so I’ll feel compelled to try to manage people’s opinions. I don’t think it’s possible to escape the addiction to ‘impression management’ unless we know our sins are forgiven.”

“Whoa,” I said. “If I’m honest, I’d have to say I do a lot to give the impression that I’m cool or smart or whatever… though at the same time I try to tell myself that I shouldn’t care so much what everybody thinks. And it is tiring, like the guy said.”

“We like to think we’re too sophisticated for this, but we all have a kind of primitive fear of being found out. That’s why it’s good news that Jesus has the power to forgive sins.”

“So when Jesus says, ‘Take my yoke’ and ‘learn from me,’ he’s deliberately leaving some parts out—doing a kind of head fake?” I asked.

“Well, he doesn’t give the entire dissertation in every sound bite.”

Did Jeff sound a little defensive? But he had a point. “Fair enough,” I replied. “But if somebody hears the ‘summary and center-piece’ and tries to live like Jesus and learn from him, they’ll get frustrated that it’s not actually possible?” So much for all those guys who think religion is a crutch; this one at least was looking like a cast-iron bitch.

He paused a moment. “When Peter Drucker was a boy, his piano teacher told him, ‘You will never play Mozart the way Arthur Schnabel does. But there is no reason in the world why you should not play your scales the way he does.’ Drucker’s point was that a lot of practice is required. We can’t learn the Jesus way like we learn which sorting algorithm works best for which dataset. It’s a lifetime of walking with him. That’s why he said ‘yoke’; he didn’t say ‘teleprompter.’

“Jesus isn’t a textbook; he has a different way of teaching. Do you know the parable of the sower?” I didn’t. “Jesus says the kingdom of God is like this strange guy who throws seed everywhere.”

“Everywhere?” I asked. “Like not just in his field?”

“Right. On the road, on the rocks, in the weeds—very inefficient. The text says that some people came around him to ask what it meant, and Jesus said, ‘The secrets of the kingdom are given to you…’”

What? “Who’s the ‘you’ there?” I wanted to know.

“That’s exactly the point. Most of the audience said, ‘Great sermon, Rabbi,’ then went home and forgot all about it.”

“But the few who didn’t?” I asked…

“Right. The ones who said, ‘Uh, Rabbi, what did you mean?’ Those were the ones who heard the secrets of the kingdom.”

“So if you ask and keep asking, you’ll get it?” I think Jesus said something like that, too.

Jeff was nodding. “You know how every hotel room in America has a Bible in it?” I did, and not just in the USA either. “Probably 99% of the guests never even open it.”

I saw where he was going. “But anyone who reads it, and keeps reading to try and understand it and live it…”

“They get the secrets of the kingdom,” he said.

Fascinating. The words of the parable say one thing… “So the parable is an invitation to do something, not just an explanation of interesting facts?”

“Exactly,” he said. “He’s not giving us a dissertation or a topo map or a textbook. Instead he’s inviting us into a relationship. An apprenticeship.”

“So when he invites people to ‘learn from me,’ as he says,…”

“That’s apprenticeship,” Jeff completed the thought. The parable—well, its interpretation at least—also invites us to apprenticeship. But ‘learn from me…’ is more straightforward.

“So what do you think, Jeff?” I wanted to know. “You’ve been thinking about what the gospel is for today; do you think that’s it? That Jesus is taking apprentices, and if we sign up, we can get healing from our addictions and burdens?”

He was nodding. “Hey, that’s pretty good! Mind if I use that?”


Of course, the gospel is more than that (why is Romans 1:17 good news?). But as far as why it might be interesting to someone who doesn’t know Jesus, is it all that bad as a summary?

Monday, July 17, 2017

Come to me… Is this the gospel?

This is not exactly a continuation of an earlier post… well, maybe it is. Or it could be. I’m using it to explore the idea of Matthew 11:28-30 as a gospel invitation.

What was I doing in this Bible lecture? Well, actually I know how I got here—I tried to get a date with Doreen, but she got me to go to “Alpha” with her, then I found myself reading the… the New Testament for crying out loud!

Then I was hooked—not just on her, but on the subject; I mean I really wanted to understand all this. So when she invited me to a talk about the Good News of Jesus for Today (approximately), it sounded interesting enough that I didn’t even mind when she couldn’t make it at the last minute. Anyway, the lecture was starting.

“Jesus said, ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’ This invitation is the centerpiece and summary of Matthew’s gospel.”

That confused me. I mean, was that it? I heard several times in college and grad school that “All have sinned…” which I never liked much, but this guy was talking about a yoke?

“What makes us weary and burdened?” he went on. “What makes me weary is trying to manage other people’s opinions of me.” I could relate to that one.

“And what burdens do we carry?” he continued. “Jesus isn’t talking about rent and groceries. But there are burdens we really shouldn’t bear, things we worry about—things I worry about—that we need to set down,” he said. I started making a mental list, which to be honest didn’t include world peace or a cure for AIDS; the issues, I’m embarrassed to say, were mostly about me. Affording a house, the next round of layoffs in the rumor mill, this sort of thing.


“So what did you think, Ray?” Jeff asked over a beer. I’d met him at Alpha, and wasn’t sure if he was like me, or if he already believed most of this.

“It’s more appealing than ‘You’re all sinners,’” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. “I mean, I don’t disagree with all that, but ‘Come to me’ is more, you know, inviting.”

OK, he did believe most of that. So I wondered aloud why he was here.

“I’ve been asking myself on and off the past few years, ‘What is the gospel?’ I mean, when Jesus preached the good news about 2,000 years ago, people were mostly really happy to hear it. What message would appeal that way to my friends and neighbors? Some years ago, I actually spent time knocking on people’s doors and asking them what they thought about Jesus. And if they let me, I’d explain the good news that although they were sinners, Jesus died for them. Results were, as they say, mixed.”

“Wow! You never struck me as one of them.” He chuckled a bit—he didn’t seem embarrassed at all. “So you still believe that, but you’re wondering how to market it better? I mean, ‘Come to me…’ and ‘All you guys are sinners’ sound like they came from different books.”

“Jesus did say ‘Come to me…’ but he also said that looking on a woman to lust after her was committing adultery in your heart. And that being angry at someone was like killing them. He also said to love your enemies. When I put all that together, I get the picture that we are all sinners. So he effectively said that ‘sinners’ thing too.

“Jesus healed a paralyzed man, but before he healed him, he said to him, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ This got him into some trouble with the religious authorities of his day. He definitely did it on purpose.”

I remembered that story. “Didn’t he say something like ‘So that you guys know I have authority to forgive sins’?”

“Yes he did! He made a big deal about having that power. Here’s how the thing about sinners ties in. If I don’t know that my sins are forgiven, I’ll be compelled to try to manage people’s opinions. I don’t think it’s possible to escape the addiction to ‘impression management’ unless we know our sins are forgiven.”

“Whoa. If I’m honest, I’d have to say I do a lot to give the impression that I’m cool or smart or whatever… though at the same time I try to tell myself that I shouldn’t care so much what everybody thinks. And it is tiring, like the guy said.”

“We like to think we’re too sophisticated for this, but we all have a kind of primitive fear of being found out. That’s why it’s good news that Jesus has the power to forgive sins.”

“So when Jesus says, ‘Take my yoke’ and ‘learn from me,’ he’s deliberately leaving some parts out—doing a kind of head fake?”

“Well, he doesn’t give the entire dissertation in every sound bite.” Did Jeff sound a little defensive? But he had a point.

“Fair enough. But if somebody hears the ‘summary and center-piece’ and tries to live like Jesus and learn from him, they’ll get frustrated that it’s not actually possible?” So much for all those guys who think religion is a crutch; this one at least was looking like a cast-iron bitch.

He paused a moment. “When Peter Drucker was a boy, his piano teacher told him, ‘You will never play Mozart the way Arthur Schnabel does. But there is no reason in the world why you should not play your scales the way he does.’ Drucker’s point was that a lot of practice is required. We can’t learn the Jesus way like we learn which sorting algorithm works best for which dataset. It’s a lifetime of walking with him. That’s why he said ‘yoke’; he didn’ say ‘teleprompter.’

“Jesus isn’t a textbook; he has a different way of teaching. Do you know the parable of the sower?” I didn’t. “Jesus says the kingdom of God is like this strange guy who throws seed everywhere.”

“Everywhere? Like not just in his field?”

“Right. On the road, on the rocks, in the weeds—very inefficient. The text says that some people came around him to ask what it meant, and Jesus said, ‘The secrets of the kingdom are given to you…’”

What? “Who’s the ‘you’ there?” I wanted to know.

“That’s exactly the point. Most of the audience said, ‘Great sermon, Rabbi,’ then went home and forgot all about it.”

“But the few who didn’t?” I asked…

“Right. The ones who said, ‘Uh, Rabbi, what did you mean?’ Those were the ones who heard the secrets of the kingdom.”

“So if you ask and keep asking, you’ll get it?” I think Jesus said something like that, too.

Jeff was nodding. “You know how every hotel room in America has a Bible in it?” I did, and not just in the USA either. “Probably 99% of the guests never even open it.”

I saw where he was going. “But anyone who reads it, and keeps reading to try and understand it and live it…”

“They get the secrets of the kingdom.”

Fascinating. The words of the parable say one thing… “So the parable is an invitation to do something, not just an explanation of interesting facts.”

“Exactly. He’s not giving us a dissertation or a topo map or a textbook. Instead he’s inviting us into a relationship. An apprenticeship.”

“So when he invites people to ‘learn from me,’ as he says,…”

“That’s apprenticeship,” Jeff completed the thought. The parable—well, its interpretation at least—also invites us to apprenticeship. But ‘learn from me…’ is more straightforward.

“So what do you think, Jeff?” I wanted to know. “You’ve been thinking about what the gospel is for today; do you think that’s it? That Jesus is taking apprentices, and if we sign up, we can get healing from our addictions and burdens?”

He was nodding. “Hey, that’s pretty good! Mind if I use that?”


Of course, the gospel is more than that (why is Romans 1:17 good news?). But as far as why it might be interesting to someone who doesn’t know Jesus, is it all that bad as a summary?