Sunday, December 31, 2006

Dialogue with God

When I spent that summer in Berkeley, back in 1980 or so, one of the leaders told us about reading Malachi. He'd read something like
"Return to me, and I will return to you," says the Lord Almighty.
from Malachi 3.7
and then he'd pray, "How shall I return to you?" Then he'd look down at his Bible again and find this:
"But you ask, ‘How are we to return?’"
from Malachi 3.7
There's more than one place in Malachi that's like this. Actually Malachi's book opens with a dialogue like that.

I think this is really cool. Often when I read the Bible I just read it like I'd read, oh, a nonfiction article. But the Bible isn't supposed to just make us smarter; it's given to us to change our lives -- as many others have said. So it's better to interact with it, to talk back to it, to ask and object and complain, and to hear the Lord's voice in it.

Back to the passage then. What immediately follows the above is this:
"Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me.

"But you ask, ‘How do we rob you?’

"In tithes and offerings.... Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this," says the Lord Almighty, "and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it."
Malachi 3.8,10
What might we say to this? One place I begin is: "Lord, does this still apply to me today?"

How about, "But I have too many bills already!" Let me extend that. The text promises to those who give the tenth that blessings will flow. "Really, Lord? Is that promise for me?" The text urges its readers to test him. Which might be a place to start. To give to him a tenth of... time, talent, treasure? The "treasure" (money) part is the easiest to measure, but what about the others? That would be a growth point for me.

How about for you?

Saturday, December 30, 2006

A puissant wife?

Today's reading from Proverbs introduces the "wife of noble character." This passage has brought needless feelings of inferiority and inadequacy to countless women who compare themselves to her. I mean, just look at her:
Proverbs 31.13
She selects wool and flax and works with eager hands.
Proverbs 31.15
She gets up while it is still dark; she provides food for her family
Proverbs 31.17
She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks.
Proverbs 31.19
In her hand she holds the distaff and grasps the spindle with her fingers.
Sounds like a very diligent person, somewhat of a workaholic maybe? Is this really what the Proverbs say about the "ideal wife"? And why did I say "needless" above? First, let me point out this part of the passage:
Proverbs 31.15-16
she provides food for ... her servant girls. She considers a field and buys it; with her earnings she plants a vineyard
OK, so what kind of woman is this? She's a real estate investor, a vintner? She has servant girls? Sure, the passage praises her strong arms, but her servants must also be doing some work.

If you're a woman who's felt persecuted by this passage, do you have servant girls? Does your checking account have enough in it for you to go around buying fields and planting vineyards? Then this passage may not apply to you! Who does it apply to then?

Looking back a few verses, I see that chapter 31 begins with "The sayings of King Lemuel." I don't know who this king was, but my takeaway from that was: this is advice for a prince, a future king. We're talking about a princess, in other words.

Considering that, it's not surprising to learn that "wife of noble character" (as in the NIV) may not be the best translation of the Hebrew there. "A powerful wife who can find?" maybe. Or "a capable woman." The word "puissant" came to mind, and though I don't really know what it means, an online search gives me this:
Having or able to exert great power (

So there it is. If you know a woman who feels inadequate or inferior because of this passage -- or especially if you are one -- then I hope you remember that this passage is talking about a woman with servant girls, with millions in her checkbook, and that most of the specifics in this passage aren't for you or anyone you know.

And if you're married to a puissant woman, then I hope you keep in mind that the book of Proverbs praises such women. Never mind the bad teaching you've heard that says a woman should be subservient to her husband; consider this powerful woman and consider how you can support your wife to be a powerful force in the world.

Friday, December 29, 2006

And the Mount of Olives will be split in two...

In the summer of 1998, we spent a week or so in Karuizawa, Japan. We were living in Kobe, and some missionary friends knew of a vacant cabin in their compound. This cabin wouldn't have passed a health inspection by any innkeeper's guild, but it was okay for a week. Anyway, we heard two terrific speakers at the old chapel there. One of them mentioned this verse from today's reading:
On that day his (the Lord’s) feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives will be split in two from east to west, forming a great valley, with half of the mountain moving north and half moving south.
Zechariah 14.4
His point was that this prophecy was as yet unfulfilled, and the fulfillment (how could it be anything but literal, talking about the Mount of Olives?) meant that the literal, physical land of Israel would continue to be important to the Lord.

Well, perhaps that is true, but looking again at this verse, it strikes me that if the Mount of Olives is literal, then "his feet" must also be literal. But since God is a Spirit, he doesn't have feet as such. Therefore the splitting of the Mount of Olives can't very well be literal either.

So what does the verse mean? I think it means that there will be tremendous and terrifying events: earthquakes and the like, geological events. Beyond that I'm not sure. But I don't think our speaker was right to say that this passage was intended to communicate the importance of the geographical Land of Israel in future events.

As for what this means to you and me, I think its point is that there will be Big Trouble in the future, and that it's a good idea not to let ourselves get caught up too much in our own concerns -- which are, let's face it, often of a trivial nature against a backdrop like this. In the face of such cataclysmic events, it behooves us indeed to trust in the Lord and in him only.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Faith the desideratum

You may have heard the concept that salvation in Old Testament times was by works or by the law or something, whereas in the New Testament it's by faith. Today's reading from Psalm 147 indicates that this is not quite the case:
His pleasure is not in the strength of the horse
nor his delight in the legs of a man;
the Lord favors those who fear him,
those who put their hope in his lovingkindness.
Psalm 147.10-11
What I see here is that the Lord delights in those who revere him and who put their hope in him. I don't see anything here about sacrifices, or the Law.

I think that in some sense, it's always been about faith, because if you didn't believe in the Lord, why would it make sense to make any of those sacrifices? Why would you deny yourself bacon with your eggs, barbecued pork ribs, tako-yaki, shrimp scampi and so on, if you didn't have a relationship with Someone eternal?

And for us today -- for the majority of us who have never believed in the Law anyway -- what does this mean for us? For one thing, it means that the Lord does not delight in the rich, the competent. He doesn't especially love the ones who sing better, who know more Scriptures and get more questions right in Sunday School. If somebody gives more or somebody's prayers sound better or they have more people come to their Bible study, that's not what delights him.

Nope. What delights him is when we put our hope in his unfailing love, when we trust him, when he is our highest joy.

Isn't that something, that the master of the universe cares whether we trust him and want to know him? What a wonderful thing, to know that we can bring delight to the Lord of heaven and earth, that by honoring him in our hearts we can bring delight to his!
posted 12/29

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

A great reversal

A few weeks ago, our pastor mentioned the Magnificat (Mary's song starting in Luke 1:46) as talking about a great reversal, where he brings down rulers, lifts up the humdle, fills the hungry, etc.

Today's reading from the psalms includes this:
He upholds the cause of the oppressed
and gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets prisoners free,
the Lord gives sight to the blind,
the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down,
the Lord loves the righteous.
Psalm 146:7-8
Is there a 1000-year echo in here? Well, of course there is, and it's both longer and shorter than that -- longer because we still recite these words today, 2000-3000 years later, and shorter because Mary could easily have gotten them from the prophet Isaiah, who spoke long after David about freedom for captives, beauty for ashes, gladness for mourners, praise for the despairing (Isaiah 61).

Why is this interesting to me? Because it shows the kind of thing the Lord loves to do -- free the captive, encourage the despairing, give sight to the blind. Isn't that cool? Aren't you glad to serve someone like that? What better to give my life to than to bring joy and hope and gladness and freedom to those who are made in God's image?

There are things to do this time of year, feeding the hungry, caring for the destitute and so on. But God doesn't love to do this kind of thing only in December; he loves to do it all year long!

There are opportunities for this sort of thing all year long, but I don't avail myself of them very often. Somehow I'm afraid I get caught up in other things too often; I don't always attend to what's truly important, or truly rewarding.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

God is good

Garrison Keillor does some terrific monologues, which he starts off with “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, my hometown.” A flood of applause always follows, because the audience knows what's coming.

A few years ago, he described an accidental adventure that John Soderberg (iirc) met while walking along the ice, thinking about life and not paying quite enough attention to his footsteps. He was wondering about his place in the cosmos and recalling an incident from childhood. Thinking about that incident, he had just concluded that “God is good,” when he stepped into someone else's ice-fishing hole and broke his leg. So there he was, alone on the ice. He dragged his ruined leg over to his own ice-fishing house and realized that he had no matches with which to light the stove. Through a series of events too long to recount here, his wife drove their car out to that ice-fishing house right then. She was very unhappy with something he'd left undone, and confronted him. He says, “God is good. God is good.” His life was saved.

Today's reading from the Psalms talks about God's goodness:

The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made. -- Psalm 145.9

What do we have to do, who do we have to be, if we want God to be good to us? That verse says we don't have to do anything; we don't have to be anyone. He is good to all and has compassion on all he has made. What a deal! Here are a few more details:

The Lord upholds all those who fall and lifts up all who are bowed down. -- Psalm 145.14

The Lord is near to all who call on him.... -- Psalm 145.18

If we fall, he will uphold us; if we are bowed down, he will lift us; if we call, he will be near. The last point I wanted to mention is something I've mentioned to my children at times. The Pharisees and priests who arranged for Jesus's death -- did they wake up one morning and say, "Today, I'm going off the rails. This is the day that I'm going to conspire to destroy the author of life"? Of course not! They went off a little at a time. They headed in the wrong direction, and quelled their doubts (the ones that should have corrected them). At the end, these men were wicked. How can we avoid their fate? This verse gives one clue:

The Lord watches over all who love him, but the wicked he will destroy. -- Psalm 145.20

Note the contrast between all who love him on the one hand, and the wicked on the other. If I love the Lord, if I welcome his oversight of my life, then he will help me not to become the wicked and be destroyed.

How cool is that? We don't have to perfect some sort of skill, accomplish some heroic act, in order to get this sort of help. We don't have to "clean up our act" or gain some esoteric knowledge or anything like that. What we have to do is love him, call to him, reach out to him.

He'll do the rest.

Monday, December 25, 2006

One of these things doesn't belong... or does it?

Today's reading from Proverbs contains an odd list, a list that reminds me of the old Sesame Street song
Three of these things are just like the others,
Three of these things are kinda the same.
One of these things just doesn't belong here —
Now it's time to play our game
When I read the list, I wonder if the author was implying that there's an "odd man out":
There are three things that are stately in their stride,
four that move with stately bearing:
a lion, mighty among beasts,
who retreats before nothing;
a strutting rooster, a he-goat,
and a king with his army around him.
Proverbs 30.29-31
So: Is there an "odd man out" in this list? Each is powerful in its own domain, but each is subject to a greater power (of course God is more powerful than the king). Only the king is mentioned as having others around him.

The list isn't in order of increasing (or decreasing) power; I suppose the author is telling us that the differences among the items in the list are of degree rather than kind. Or is it this: the animals feel confident (or move with stately bearing) because of their physical strength, equipment, or fighting skills, whereas the man's power is based on social convention?

What I take from this verse (which still strikes me as very funny) is that a rooster is not so much different from a powerful politician, tycoon, or syndicate boss. The strutting rooster looks ridiculous when confronted by a dog (say) and has to suddenly turn tail to flee; likewise, a strutting tycoon looks pitiful when fired by the board or sentenced to prison for securities fraud.

And how many powerful men will feel worse than ridiculous when their Maker confronts them? May they turn toward God while there's still time, and may we do the same.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Why do we go to church?

Today's Old Testament reading is from the book of Zechariah, who prophesied during the period of the Babylonian exile. In response to a question about mourning and fasting, the Lord speaks through Zechariah:
“Ask all the people of the land and the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted? And when you were eating and drinking, were you not just feasting for yourselves?
Zechariah 7.5-6
Brought forward to today, this could read, “When you went to church every Sunday for the past 70 years, was it really me you worshiped?”

Indeed, who is it we worship when we join with other believers? Are we worshiping the Lord? Or are we doing something because it's a (good) habit? To do good in the world? Are we coming to see our friends? Are we looking for an experience (a "feel-good" one or otherwise)?

These alternatives aren't wrong, but unless at least some of what we do in church on Sundays is worship the Lord, submit ourselves to him, reaffirm our commitment to do his will... then I think we're headed for trouble. It seems to me that good intentions and good works will run out of gas unless the spirit of God is driving them forward.

So whatever else I do at church - welcoming people, listening to them, encouraging or praying for them - I hope that I find communion with the Lord himself.

Otherwise I'm just going to a meeting of people; I'm not meeting God.

Because he's always ready to meet you or me; may we be ready to meet him as well.

posted 12/26

Saturday, December 23, 2006

to Zerubbabel: Not by might nor by power...

If you've hung around churches (or Synagogues maybe?) much you may have heard this verse from the book of Zechariah:
“This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty.”
from Zechariah 4.6
I don't know how many times I've heard or read this verse, and maybe I just never paid attention before, but I had taken it generically. You know, that God's purposes will be accomplished by a work of his Spirit in the lives of individuals, not necessarily by a big well-equipped organization.

But for some reason, when I looked at it today, I noticed that it seems to be a word of encouragement to Zerubbabel, meant to strengthen him in the face of opposition. Because the next verse begins:
“What are you, O mighty mountain? Before Zerubbabel you will become level ground....”
from Zechariah 4.7
In other words, "though the wrong seem oft so strong, God is the ruler yet." Or "the race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong" but God's Spirit can overcome any obstacle -- miraculously or simply by bringing strength and endurance to his people.

If, as you seek to fulfill God's purposes, you feel overwhelmed by the size of the task or the obstacles arrayed against you, this verse may be for you!

Victory is determined ...not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, declares the Lord.


Friday, December 22, 2006

An Encouraging Picture

Today's Old Testament reading includes this wonderful picture, from the book of Zechariah:
Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right side to accuse him. The Lord said to Satan, "The Lord rebuke you, Satan! ..."

The angel said to those who were standing before him, "Take off his filthy clothes.

"Then he said to Joshua, "See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put rich garments on you."

Then I said, "Put a clean turban on his head." So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him, while the angel of the Lord stood by.

Zechariah 3.1-2a,4-5
I don't know about you, but this makes me feel really good, because the cleansing of Joshua here is a picture of the cleansing we can look forward to if we belong to Jesus.

We all have sinned, and as Isaiah tells us, our own attempts to get cleaned up are nothing more than filthy rags (64.6). Satan accuses us, but the Lord rebukes him.

Now you may have heard that "Joshua" (in Hebrew) is very close to "Jesus". Which I have also heard. But this passage refers to Joshua's sin -- and our Lord Jesus never had any. So this isn't talking about him.

And although it refers to Joshua as a high priest, Peter tells us that we are a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2.9). So I think it's OK to feel encouraged by this passage.

Our dirty rags removed, rich garments and a clean turban put on in their place. Our sins forgiven, and our accuser shut down. And that's why the Savior's birth is good news for all the peoples of the world.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

If the woman is real, the dragon is real

In Revelation 12, John describes a "great and wondrous sign in heaven":
... a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads.
Revelation 12.1-3
I remember the first time I looked at this passage. It was back in the early 1980s, and a representative of some cult was telling me that this passage described the birth of his cult's leader.

It seemed pretty bogus to me -- the woman is clearly allegorical -- but I couldn't articulate why. It wasn't until later that a friend of mine pointed out that if the dragon wasn't real, the woman wouldn't be real either. There is no way that a biblical author would put a physical woman in the same scene with a metaphorical dragon!

The passage goes on to say that the dragon wants to devour the child as soon as it was born, but that the child was "snatched up to God and to his throne." (verse 5).

So what does the passage really mean? The twelve stars in the woman's crown has got to mean the twelve tribes of Israel. Matthew tells us that Herod wanted to kill Jesus as soon as he was born, and Herod might have been animated by the dragon. Seven heads might mean the seven hills of Rome, which would fit.

But this is certain: if the woman was real, the dragon was real, and this passage is in no way talking about the birth of any 20th century cult leader.

So what? Chances are you've never talked with someone from this cult. If you do encounter a cult representative, you probably can't convince them that their cult has misled them, but if they refer to this passage, you can plant a seed of doubt: "If the woman is real, the dragon has to be real too, doesn't it?"

And we're encouraged to endure. The brothers overcome their accuser, the dragon, who is thrown out of heaven (verses 9-11):
They overcame him by the blood of the lamb and by the word of their testimony, and they did not love their lives even unto death.
Revelation 12.11
I'm thinking they're worthy of emulation.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Search me, O God, and know my heart

Today's reading includes Psalm 139, which remindes me about God's presence. Not just "God with us" but "God with me" in particular:
O Lord, you have searched me
and you know me
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
Psalm 139.1-2
It goes on like that, the psalmist praying and taking great comfort that God knows him and is always with him. There's even a recent song - a "praise song" I guess - based on this psalm.

Based on the nice parts, that is. Here's a part that the modern songwriters skipped:
If only you would slay the wicked, O God!
Away from me, you bloodthirsty men!
Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord,
and abhor those who rise up against you?
I have nothing but hatred for them;
I count them my enemies.
Psalm 139.19,21,22
What do you make of that? That's not the kind of language we expect to hear in church these days, and in fact we usually don't. Scare away the visitors, that would.

But David didn't seem to mind saying those things. He knows that God knows his heart; why try to hide anything?

And so with us. Or so it should be, at least in private. But how many of us tell God what we really feel? How often do we censor our feelings and thoughts from God, or even from ourselves?

As a friend once told me, "Anger won't be denied." It will leak out in my words, my attitudes, my actions; it'll be displaced. It might leak out slowly; it might come out all at once in an explosion over some apparently trivial thing. Better to acknowledge what God already knows is there.

May God search our hearts today and give us the grace and courage to admit what's really there, that we can follow him in truth.

Why does money disappear?

Today's Old Testament reading is as timely today as it was some 2500 years ago when the prophet Haggai proclaimed it:
Now this is what the Lord Almighty says: "Give careful thought to your ways.You have planted much, but have harvested little. [...] You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it.
from Haggai 1:5-6
Do you ever feel like that? I certainly do. We get to the end of the month and I wonder how we managed to spend everything. It's a good thing we have payroll deductions, or we probably wouldn't be saving or giving much.

So what is Haggai talking about? Is his advice -- or rather, the advice that the Lord spoke through Haggai -- relevant to us today? Judge for yourself.
You expected much, but see, it turned out to be little. What you brought home, I blew away. Why?" declares the Lord Almighty. "Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with his own house.
Haggai 1:9
Apparently, these people were neglecting the Lord's temple, and as a result he cut their agricultural productivity. So that's one reason that money seems to disappear -- when we neglect the things of God.

Of course that's not the whole story; even those who give generously sometimes feel like money seems to just disappear. One reason is suggested by something my friend Alex says (by the way I hesitate to say "financial difficulties" because of this). A pastor at his old church used to tell people:
You say you have financial troubles? Visit the Philippines; there you will see people trying to survive on what they find in the trash dump. After that I'm not sure you will still say you have financial problems.
Some of us (myself included) have very high expectations for material prosperity. Would it be too harsh to say that our perspective is a little out of kilter considering the crushing poverty that most of the world lives in?

One more thing occurs to me, and that's the power of false gods in our lives. If money just seems to disappear, and especially if I feel anxious about having enough, this could be a sign that money has too much power in my life -- that it's a false god, or an idol, in my life.

And if that's the case, I know of only one way to break its power: to repudiate it by acting in faith. Of course we have to pray, too, but the thing to do is to give some away. By giving money away (even if I also get a tax deduction), I declare that I have more than I need (which is certainly true). I exercise power over money and thereby show that money does not have power over me. I topple the idol and turn in faith to God, from whom all blessings actually flow.

This isn't a mystical "give to God and he will give back to you" -- it's more like "act with a right perspective on money, and some sanity will return to you." Which even an unbelieving psychologist will acknowledge is true.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

What's the Lord going to do? Anything?

I don't remember exactly where or when it was (except it was over 20 years ago), but a preacher was encouraging us to read and understand the entire Bible. Imagine getting to heaven, he said, and meeting, say, Haggai:
"How did you like my book?" he might ask.

"Huh? What book?" you say. Imagine your embarrassment!

"You did read the Bible when you were down there on earth, didn't you?" You might feel sheepish -- a feeling that only gets worse when Haggai says, "Hey Zephaniah -- come here and meet this guy!"
Well, OK, so I have read Zephaniah's book and Haggai's, too. I don't remember much about Zephaniah's book except this one verse I memorized some time ago:
At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps
and punish those who are complacent,
who are like wine left on its dregs,
who think, “ the Lord will do nothing,
either good or bad.”

Zephaniah 1.12
So why did I memorize that particular verse? Well. Though I believe God is there, and that he hears and knows and cares, I often don't feel confident that he will take action in a given circumstance.

A possible endpoint for that kind of thinking is the feeling that the Lord won't do anything (good or bad) -- to be like those complacent people who are like wine left on its dregs (what a picture!)

Suppose for a moment that I wanted to end up like that -- complacent, sure that God won't do anything. What would I do today? Well, one thing would be to obsess over the news. Then I wouldn't ever pray. I'd ignore the Bible -- until Sunday. I'd have a couple more beers and watch TV.

OK, now, back to reality. Now there's nothing wrong with a beer or a little TV. But if I don't want to end up like the ding-a-lings the Lord will punish, then I don't want to do too much of any of those distractions. Watch or hear the news, sure, but don't obsess. Pray. Read and practice the Bible. And so on.

The choice is ours: to be like wine left on its dregs? Or to have a spring of living waters bubbling up from within? No points for guessing the better way to be.

And may the Lord help us to do so!

Monday, December 18, 2006

As the waters cover the sea

Why is the world such a mess? I heard a speaker talk about various causes of human suffering, and he listed a few sources: natural disasters (tsunami, earthquake &c), accidents (which can break a limb or a life), facts of biology (aging and the like), carelessness/misunderstandings, and a broad category that includes selfishness, greed, anger, wrath, malice &c — “evil” for short. And how to fix it? We've had thousands of years of trying to fix it ourselves, but today's reading includes a happy aspect of the future:
For the knowledge of the glory of the Lord will cover the earth
as the waters cover the seas.
Habakkuk 2.14
Which sounds like good news to me, because of all those possible causes of suffering, "evil" seems like it ought to be the most preventable one — hence the most tragic.

But a particular subset of "covering the earth" involves covering people like you and me. In Blue Like Jazz, Miller makes the point that you can't fix the world without fixing the man in the mirror.

So this promise is good news, for the world in general, but also for my family, friends, colleagues.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Why do we need a savior?

Today's readings are full of disaster. The book of Nahum talks about the destruction of Nineveh, which happened around 612 B.C. according to my NIV Study Bible. Interesting that Nahum ends with this remark, addressed to the king of Assyria:
Nothing can heal your wound;
your injury is fatal.
Everyone who hears the news about you
claps his hands at your fall,
for who has not felt
your endless cruelty?
Nahum 3.19
The fall of Nineveh apparently won't be seen as a disaster by everyone. So it is when evil deeds are avenged. But wait a minute. Weren't there a bunch of innocents there as well? Grannies and mothers and children and babies? I'm not sure what to make of that, but it's certainly true that kings can make life miserable for their people. Not only directly (by oppressing them, say) but also by making bad decisions that bring the wrath of God on the place. Yet another reason to pray for kings and those in authority.

But disaster isn't only for 612 B.C.; it's also in our future. In today's New Testament reading, from the book of Revelation (or the Apocalypse), talks about the seven angels with seven trumpets. One angel sounds his trumpet and a third of the earth is burned up; the second one causes marine disasters, and so on. Then an eagle calls out: “Woe! Woe! Woe to the inhabitants of the earth, because of the trumpet blasts about to be sounded by the other three angels!” (Revelation 8.13). You can guess that those other trumpets won't signal the start of a sporting event.

So here's the thing. The just wrath of the Lord is coming on the earth. It's not just because of the endless cruelty of kings, but also because of all the times that you and I have been petty or selfish, ungrateful or spiteful, insensitive or unforgiving — all the times we have looked elsewhere for what only Jesus can provide. So let's pray for each other too.

And by the way, that's why we need a savior — because try as we might to do better, we do all those things that we shouldn't.

So it really is good news that Jesus Christ came to earth to save us from our sins.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Now that's inclusive

Here's a passage that got me very excited a few years ago, from the book of Revelation. It's a vision of heaven:
After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne
Revelation 7.9 (emphasis mine)
Why did I find this so significant?

Well, it turns out that there are a lot of ethnic and linguistic minorities in the world. Folks from Wycliffe Bible Translators make this point a lot in their literature, so I guess I've known that for a couple of decades anyway. But a few years ago, Carol and I were involved with some folks from one of these ethnic minorities.

Perhaps you've heard of the Hmong? Well, we were involved with a much smaller group, the Mien, a people with their own language, but no literature (no written language until 50 years ago) and no country of their own. About 25,000 of them live in the United States. In the whole world there are probably not more than 1-2 million; they live in China, Viet Nam, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia — most of them beyond the reach of the usual mission agencies. Most of them follow an animistic religion and live in fear of evil spirits. I mean they actually sacrifice chickens as part of, say, a wedding ceremony. I mean now, today, in the 21st century.

Will these people be set free from this spiritual captivity? We were at a christian camp for Mien youth, and the passage above really spoke to me, because the Apostle John saw these people from every nation and language. And they didn't all get assimilated -- in John's vision he could tell that people were there from every tribe and tongue and nation. Which means that the Mien people will not be absent from this party, and also that they will not just be assimilated by whatever country they happen to live in; their culture won't disappear.

I got kinda choked up talking about this at that camp, because I could feel the anxiety some of them had about disappearing, being assimilated, fading into the surrounding culture (or fading away). And here's a promise, an assurance that no, that won't happen.

And that applies to every tribe and tongue and nation, by the way. None will be lost forever.

And that’s inclusive!

Friday, December 15, 2006

last word of the day?

This week's Old Testament readings are from the so-called "minor" prophets. These were not minor people, but their books are short; I seem to remember that in the Hebrew Bible they're called "The Twelve," and that their books fit on one or two scrolls. Combined, these works account for no more than about 4% of the English Bible; the book of Isaiah is bigger than these twelve combined.

This morning's reading is from the first part of Micah, and includes this verse that I memorized some years ago:
Woe to those who scheme iniquity
who work out evil on their beds.
In the light of the morning they do it
because it is in the power of their hands.
Micah 2.1
Who are these guys that he's talking about? The next verse talks about taking people's fields and houses, defrauding fellow men of their inheritance, this sort of thing.

When I was young and single, at night I would sometimes fantasize about women. The next day I would struggle with lustful thoughts. That's why I memorized this verse - it was to remind me to think about something else at night. In particular some of my roommates had a practice that they called "His Word the last word" - that the last thing said at night was something from the Bible.

That's a good practice - one I should probably revive with my present roommate.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

And also much cattle

You've probably heard the story of Jonah; the Lord told him to go to east to Nineveh (today part of Iraq), but Jonah went to the sea and boarded a westbound ship. He hated the Assyrians (Nineveh being the capital) and didn't want to warn them about the coming disaster, didn't want them to repent. He would rather prefer that God flatten the city. (Which history shows us he did — but that was much later.)

Jonah never made it to Spain; he was swallowed by a fish, which took him back to dry land. This time he obeyed. He preached that after 40 days the city would be destroyed. And just as he feared, the city repented: the king of Nineveh told his people to “give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”

It's interesting that the king knew that his ways, and the ways of his people, were evil, and especially interesting that he mentioned violence in particular.

And it struck me, reading the story this time around, that God might have put that message in the king's mind to speak to Jonah. Because Jonah dreamed of violence against Nineveh. He even constructed a shelter for himself to watch - hoping no doubt for fire and brimstone to rain down on Nineveh, as it did on Sodom and Gomorrah.

But you probably know the story; the Lord relents and leaves Nineveh’s destruction for another day. Jonah is furious, though; he wanted the city destroyed. And God answers Jonah, showing his care for human beings (made in his image) as well as cattle (which aren't):
“...Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?”
Jonah 4.11
Indeed. I wonder if this is why George MacDonald said there would be dogs in heaven?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

So bad...

Today's Old Testament reading is from the book of Obadiah. I have two memories about this book: one is from college, when someone from my dorm gave an irreverant commentary. “Lots of places in the Bible say lots of important things,” he said, “But not the book of Obadiah. The book of Obadiah doesn't mean squat.” I skimmed it - all 21 verses (the whole book fits on a single page) - and it seemed to me not to say much. That was in the mid '70s, before I came to know Jesus personally.

The other thing I remember about Obadiah was from a “Walk Thru the Bible” seminar at our church, where our teacher said that the Edomites were So— Bad (he really stretched out the “o”) that God sent O—Bad-iah to preach to them. And unlike the Assyrians in Nineveh (cf. Jonah), I don't think they listened much.

So what is this book about, assuming that my dorm-mate was wrong?

As I read through it today, it looks like a rebuke of the Edomites because of their arrogance, and a prediction of disaster (which the Lord himself will bring):
“The day of the Lord is near
for all nations.
As you have done, it will be done to you;
your deeds will return upon your own head.
The house of Jacob will be a fire
and the house of Joseph a flame;
the house of Esau will be a stubble,
and they will set it on fire and consume it.
There will be no survivors
from the house of Esau.”
Obadiah 16,18
And so what? What does this mean to you and me today?

Something that comes to mind as I look at this: if it is me that's in trouble, and others are gloating, then never fear: the Lord will take care of them as they deserve. I don't have to fret (which as the Psalms say leads only to evildoing) or take my own revenge.

And a corollary of that point: In the end, the devil will get his due as well. I don't know if Obadiah is talking about that, actually, but this part makes me think it's addressed at some spiritual forces, not just at historical Edom:
“ who say to yourself,
‘Who can bring me down to the ground?’
Though you soar like the eagle
and make your nest among the stars,
from there I will bring you down,”
declares the Lord.
Obadiah 3-4
Could that have been addressed to more than just the Edomites? More than just humans who feel secure in themselves? To the evil one and his minions perhaps?

Finally, if someone else is in trouble, even an enemy, we might do well to avoid gloating. As one of my old housemates paraphrased Galatians, “... ’cause it coulda been you.” Gloating and arrogance, particularly about someone that the Lord feels affectionate toward, could bring trouble onto us. Which does not sound like fun.

So: a caution not to be a gloater or a boaster, and confidence that my persecutors will get theirs. Two nontrivial things out of this little book, so yes, I think my dormmate was wrong.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

“Get out, you seer!”

A few Sundays ago, we heard a great sermon about the human condition. Our pastor said that after doing something shabby and being called on it, “I thought, ‘What else could I have done?’ And a little voice said to me,

“‘You could have said, I’m sorry, you’re right; thank you for pointing out that character defect in me, for correcting me.

“ And I said, ‘I don’t like that one very much; what else have you got?’”

We all laughed, but we also recognized ourselves in that little vignette. Most of us don’t really like being corrected.

Today’s Old Testament reading, from the book of Amos, includes someone who took that attitude, the attitude of hating correction, and turned it into a fine art, or rather a coarse one.
Then Amaziah the priest of Bethel sent a message to Jeroboam king of Israel: “Amos is raising a conspiracy against you in the very heart of Israel. The land cannot bear all his words. For this is what Amos is saying:

“‘Jeroboam will die by the sword, and Israel will surely go into exile, away from their native land.’ ”

Then Amaziah said to Amos, “Get out, you seer! Go back to the land of Judah. Earn your bread there and do your prophesying there. Don’t prophesy anymore at Bethel, because this is the king’s sanctuary and the temple of the kingdom.”
Amos 7.12-13
This Amaziah guy was something else — but how different from him am I when I reject the truth about my own sin... when I’m being selfish or rude, when I pursue meaning in life outside of my relationship with Jesus? When I ignore a pang of conscience or a prompting of the spirit?

Today, if I hear his voice, let me not harden my heart. Let me not be like Amaziah. Help me to be like the man who under reproof becomes wiser and increases his learning — and not to be a scoffer.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Cows of Bashan?

Back in the ’80s, I had the pleasure of attending a “Walk Thru the Bible” seminar held at our church. There I learned that two Old Testament books were written by prophets sent to the ten northern tribes of Israel (sometimes referred to as “Ephraim”). The northern tribes just laughed at them — “HA HA” — which is a mnemonic device to remember the initials of those two prophets: “H” is for Hosea and “A” is for Amos (which sound like detective stories by Sue Grafton). Anyway, this morning’s Old Testament reading, from the book of the prophet Amos, begins like this:
Hear this word, you cows of Bashan on Mount Samaria,
you women who oppress the poor and crush the needy
and say to your husbands, “Bring us some drinks!”
Amos 4.1
Two things hit me about this. First, the language (especially the “cows” part) is unusual. Well, it seems that way to me, anyway. Second, who is this he’s addressing? They sound like music or movie stars — not all celebrities are like that I know, but that’s the stereotype. (And I wonder why he’s addressing women in particular?)

And I’ll bet you’re dying to know what the word is that’s being spoken to them. Here it is: they’re in big trouble; they’ll be taken away with hooks (as in fishhooks). Ouch!

Then the unusual diction continues:
“Go to Bethel and sin;
go to Gilgal and sin yet more.
Bring your sacrifices every morning,
your tithes every three years.
Burn leavened bread as a thank offering
and brag about your freewill offerings —
boast about them, you Israelites,
for this is what you love to do,”
declares the Sovereign Lord.
Amos 4.4-5
The irony is astonishing — I think Amos has to be the champ of irony among the prophets. (By the way, leavened bread is a no-no for thank offerings, which would remove all doubt about the irony to any contemporary reader of this passage.) What I love about this passage is that it shows you don’t have to be politically correct (or even polite) to be used by God!

“I gave you empty stomachs in every city
and lack of bread in every town,
yet you have not returned to me,”
declares the Lord.
Amos 4.6
Now what’s that about? Well, at the beginning of today’s reading, we had some stuff about rich people — celebrities. And we saw in chapter 13 of Hosea, being rich and satisfied seemed to lead people away from God.

So now he’s bringing them poverty. Because it’s better to suffer on earth and return to God, than to have plenty on earth and die without him.

An astonishing thought.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Loving and Doing

Some years ago, when I was still single, I drove down to southern California to meet George, the uncle of one of my housemates. He was associated with a rescue mission in southern California, and I wanted to hear some of the things he had learned about life, and to see what kinds of things I might do to lend a hand. I never did end up working with him, but I do remember talking with him about this verse from today's reading:
Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first.
from Revelation 2.4-5
If it's not familiar, this passage is from a vision that the apostle John saw — in particular, it's from a letter dictated to the angel of the church in Ephesus.

Anyway, George expressed to me that he'd been feeling like he wasn't as enthusiastic about the Lord's work as he once was, and referred to this passage. What did I think, he asked me.

I told him that although I'd never been married, I guessed that on some days he woke up not feeling as crazily in love with his wife as he might have in the past. He allowed as this was so. I also guessed that on other days, things were great in that department. Apparently I was on a roll. And I think I noticed the last sentence quoted above: "Repent and do the things you did at first" (emphasis mine), and mentioned that to him as well.

Looking back on that conversation, it seems to me that he was an amazingly humble man, asking this twentysomething kid for advice. Well, it wasn't advice actually; more likely he knew that wisdom sometimes comes "out of the mouths of babes"; God spoke through a donkey at least once, too!

That came back to me today as I read this passage. If discretion is the better part of valor, then maybe doing is the better part of loving? Which reminds me of something our Lord said more than once: If you love me, you will obey my commands.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

whatis vision; whatis perish

How many times have you heard or seen this verse quoted in management seminars?
Where there is no vision, the people perish.
from Proverbs 29.18
This is a great verse, but these management seminars use this to mean that we need "strategic objectives" for the organization or for the department. This drives me batty! First of all, what's the rest of the verse say? And what does it mean? Let's try the NIV:
Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint;
But blessed are those who keep the law
from Proverbs 29.18
The online parallel Bible site has more translations, but that's the gist of the proverb. It was probably in the early 1980s when I first heard this verse explained, at a Christian conference.

But we don't have to go all that far to find out what this means. The structure gives quite a bit of the meaning to us. Because the proverb is a contrast, the interpretation isn't as hard as it might have been. Let's take a look at the old King James version:
Where there is no vision, the people perish;
but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.
If this verse were talking about the importance of strategic objectives, it would have read:
but he that hath a sound corporate mission statement, happy is he.
So that gives us the clue... what's being contrasted is not a Mission (or Purpose) Statement or a Corporate Vision, but something to do with keeping the law.

What else might "vision" mean? Well, here's the verse that came to my mind: 1 Samuel 3.1 says: In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions. The NIV editors came up with the same answer. Not a corporate Mission and Purpose statement, but a revelation, possibly verbal, from the Lord.

And how about "perish"? Well, what's it contrasted with in the proverb? Even in the King James version, what stands out is that its opposite is "keep the law" — which lends support to the NIV editors’ version: "Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint."

Without a word from God, in other words, human society will tend toward disaster — which it has done for the past few thousand years. And the antidote? To pay attention to the light that we have from God — the Bible, godly preaching and teaching, the promptings of his Spirit.

Replacing a timer: General Electric WB19X5249 in a JBP26G range

Some months ago, the mechanical timer on our GE range started buzzing. Sometimes we could make it stop by delicately adjusting it; other times it would decide you were trying to set it for 59 minutes and 15 seconds... and would tell you about it later. Not to worry, I said; let me stick a toothpick into the buzzer. This (top view) is not the recommended way to fix it:
timer fixed by toothpicks
This fix means you can't use the timer on the stove, but that's OK; a timer costs $9.95 and you can put it on the dining table or something. Well, that worked OK for a while, and then I couldn't get the clock to do anything at all. This was mostly OK, until we switched from Daylight Savings to Standard Time; I pulled the circuit breaker, turning the stove (and its clock) off. An hour later, I turned it back on.

Then last week, one of the controls broke. When my wife turned the front burner on WARM or LOW, the element got real hot real fast (it glowed red).

I suppose I could have just written "HI" everywhere on the knob that wasn't "OFF", but there were two problems with it — first, I didn't think of it until now, and second, it wouldn't have gone over very well. She called, they had the parts in stock, so off we went. The new control for that front right burner took a little guesswork, but basically it works now.

STOP! Before going any further, UNPLUG the range! As one of my wiring books says, Think! Stay alive!

The timer was a little more complicated. First of all, you can't buy those mechanical timers any more. What you get is one of those new-fangled electronic digital thingies that looks like this:

So there's one thing you should definitely do, even before you leave the store. First, let me explain that whereas the old mechanical timer had shafts sticking out of it (and "female" knobs that fit onto them), the new timer has holes. But fear not; they give you these knobs that are, umm, "male". Here is a close-up of one:

Find three of these guys, insert them into the appropriate places in the timer's front panel, and give each one a gentle push. Make sure the switches give you a little tactile feedback. On the first timer I got, the "UP" and "DOWN" ones worked OK, but the "MODE" one felt like it was just a dummy button. The problem was that the circuit board was warped, so the shaft didn't quite reach the button (...biting my tongue as I write this...) mounted on the circuit board. The switch, in other words, was too far away from the front of the timer unit, making activation impossible.

I didn't find out about all this until I had removed the old timer, inserted the new one (a LONG process), wired it up, etc. So save yourself the trouble — make sure the timer and the knobs actually work together.

OK, now that you've got the timer, how do you replace the old one? You have to remove the front panel from the range. Pull off the oven control knobs (one on each side of the timer). You'll need to remove one screw from each control to release the front panel. Here's the right-hand one (oven temp):

Notice how the bottom screw used to hold the front panel onto something, but the top screw can be accessed regardless whether the front panel is on or not? So remove the bottom screw here, and also the corresponding screw on the OVEN SET switch (to the left of the timer).

The next thing you have to do is remove these nasty "TORX" things that hold the ends of the front panel. There is one on each end cap and one at each end of the top. I don't have a regular TORX tool, but about 25 years ago, my dad bought me a set of screwdriver (etc) blades for my electric drill. Here is a picture of the screwdriver blade kit:

It's a very nice kit. The tool of interest is the leftmost one in that photo, so I guess the two blades you need are the TORX T15 and T20. Anyway, there are two pictures showing the end of the top of the stove, and the end cap:

The second one shows the TORX tool in the screw in the top of the stove. When you do this, watch out for the off-white plastic plugs. These guys hold the end-caps onto the top-rear flange of the front panel, and they have a tendency to fall out and roll under something.

Anyway, after you get all 4 TORX "screws" removed, you'll be able to drop the front panel.

You've disconnected the power already, right?

Oh! You need to get the back panel off, too, so you can get at the wiring and stuff. You want a 1/4" nutdriver for these. The far right (viewed from behind the stove) screw need only be loosened; you don't need to completely remove it. You do have to remove 4–5 others, though; then you can slide the top section of that rear panel downward and to the left, then off that right-hand screw.

Anyway, if you're more observant than I am, you'll probably notice that there is some mounting hardware in the box:

Probably you'll want to take those brackets, find four screws to attach them to the timer like this:

and mount it onto the stove like this:

But don't do it, because you won't be able to put the front panel (in this picture, lying on the cooktop surface) back on! This was a design gaffe on GE's part, in my not-so-humble opinion.

So here is what you should do instead. Take a screwdriver with a sharp blade, and, standing behind the stove, hold the timer carefully so you can see where you have to notch the sheet metal. Using the screwdriver, score the sheet metal where notches will be needed. A triangular file or (what I used) a single cut bastard mill file will do it. Here's the thing: even without the brackets, the timer won't slide backward and fall out the back. In fact, you won't even be able to put the front panel back on. You have to cut some notches in the vertical pieces of sheet metal, so that the timer can slide part-way back. That's what the file is for.

OK, here's a picture taken from the back of the stove, after I filed a couple of notches.

You can see the places where I scored the sheet metal, but the notches aren't very clearly visible. Here's a photo taken from the front; notches are more clearly visible here.

Note also the lack of mounting hardware.

You have to do that on both the left and the right. Installation of the front panel is the reverse of removal. Make sure the timer doesn't move around while you're replacing the front panel. Start the two (larger/longer) TORX screws atop the front panel, but don't tighten them yet. Double-check the position of the timer. Start (but don't tighten) the two shorter TORX screws to hold the end-caps to either side of the range. Now install the two screws that you took out earlier, one on each oven control knob, to hold the front panel on. You can tighten these. Then tighten the four TORX screws. Install the wiring. Plug the range back in and do a sanity-check on the clock.

NOTE: The instruction sheet is your friend!

Put the back panel back on. You probably moved the stove some in order to get at the back panel; now would be a great time to run the vacuum cleaner on the parts of the floor newly exposed, if you haven't already done that.

Return the stove to its normal working position. You're allowed to feel smug, but don't reveal that feeling to your spouse; there's no profit in that.

Friday, December 08, 2006

A promise I don't really want

About a quarter-century ago, I attended a Christian "summer training program" for young people. For nine weeks, a bunch of us lived in a frat house in Berkeley. Some found jobs in the area; others already had jobs (mine was in Cupertino). Early mornings, nights and weekends were spent in fellowship, Bible study, skits and the like. I remember one study, on humility, where we looked up some promises that God has for the proud. One was from 1 Peter 5, saying that God opposes the proud. That's not something I want - to have God promise to oppose me.

Another was from Hosea chapter 13, which is in today's Old Testament reading:
When I fed them, they were satisfied.
When they were satisfied, they became proud.
Then they forgot me.
So I will come upon them like a lion;
Like a leopard I will lurk by the path.
Like a bear robbed of her cubs
I will attack and rip them open.
Like a lion I will devour them;
A wild animal will tear them apart.
Hosea 13.6-8
Now that's an unwelcome promise; I really don't want to make the same mistake that these folks did. That's why, when some of us were talking the other day about prosperity theology, I said I was a little scared of being rich. The above passage came to mind, as well as the place in Proverbs 30 that talks about having too much, and disowning God and saying, “Who is the Lord?”

It would be sad to end up like Howard Hughes — isolated, alone, and miserable — even if he was one of the richest men on the planet.

But I guess you don't have to be rich to be proud (and opposed by God), so that's what I need to be most concerned about.

Because not all of God's promises are nice ones.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Empty words, even pious-sounding words, don't please

Today's reading contains these seemingly pious lines (someone has even set them to music):
"Come, let us return to the Lord.
He has torn us to pieces
but he will heal us;
he has injured us
but he will bind up our wounds.
After two days he will revive us;
on the third day he will restore us,
that we may live in his presence.
Let us acknowledge the Lord;
let us press on to acknowledge him.
As surely as the sun rises, he will appear;
he will come to us like the winter rains,
like the spring rains that water the earth."
Hosea 6.3
Sounds pretty good, doesn't it? They want to acknowledge, to know the Lord. Or so they say. And they are confident that he's coming again to show goodness to them.

What do you suppose the Lord thinks about this? Well, he doesn't sound happy:
"What can I do with you, Ephraim?
What can I do with you, Judah?
Your love is like the morning mist,
like the early dew that disappears.
Therefore I cut you in pieces with my prophets,
I killed you with the words of my mouth;
my judgments flashed like lightning upon you.
For I desire mercy, not sacrifice,
and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.
Hosea 6.4-5
Yow! Apparently their words were insincere. Chapter 5 of Hosea talks about the coming judgment on Ephraim (which here represents the ten northern tribes, the two southern tribes being Judah and Benjamin); the rest of chapter 6 deals with Ephraim's misdeeds.

What is this telling us? The obvious thing is that if I habitually ignore and reject God, if I live a life of violence and idolatry, if I neglect the less fortunate people around me, then pious words alone will not please God; they will only annoy him.

A little less obvious, but still true: if I neglect my wife or my children for days on end, then a few words, even some very nice ones, won't make up for those days of neglect.

Or anyone else for that matter. Do people around me know that I care about them? Do I care bout them?

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

dance of anger?

In a recent essay, the older teen wrote about some different ways families express negative emotions. And express them we must; as one of my friends told me a few years ago, "anger won't be denied" -- it's like trying to hold several fully-inflated beach balls underwater. Today's reading from the Proverbs includes this remark:
A fool gives full vent to his anger,
but a wise man keeps himself under control.
Proverbs 29.11
So what does that mean, to keep under control? I'm sure I don't have this all figured out, and I tend to err in the direction of suppressing emotions. But I do express them - in prayer, in my journals, in (never-sent) emails.

Sometimes I wonder if it wouldn't be better to vent a little more. But then I remember the exhortation not to take our own revenge but to "leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." (Romans 12.19)

A good thing for me to remember.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

And the witness is this...

One of the first passages of Scripture I memorized as a young Christian comes from today's New Testament reading:
And the witness is this: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his son. He who has the son has the life; he who does not have the son of God does not have life. These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the son of God, in order that you may know that you have eternal life.
1 John 5.11-13
That passage was, and is, a great comfort to me, especially that last part about being able to know that you have eternal life.

John is very keen on connecting these three together:
  • believing Jesus is the son of God
    If you don't believe Jesus is the son of God, he says, you make God out to be a liar. Ouch!
  • overcoming the world
    Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God. - 1 John 5.5

    Now that's good news. Overcoming the world - with its temptations and distractions - that sounds really good to me. Because most of the time I don't feel like I've overcome the world; I feel like I'm just staying afloat. Maybe the thing is to recognize that, as he says, we have indeed overcome the world, and not feel and act defeated?

  • eternal life.
    And as an old friend (who'd object to being characterized that way) said, "Eternal life begins now." The other thing is that eternal life is secure. If you had it only for a couple of years, it wasn't eternal at all, was it?
This is a great chapter in a great book. The next verses talk about how he hears us when we pray according to his will. That is a great thing, too. Imagine if the President (or the Queen, or the Prime Minister) heard you when you asked for something - how cool would that be? Then consider what it means that the Master of the Universe hears us when we pray to him - and how much cooler that is, especially since it's reality, not just a "what if".

And that's some good news.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Have I overcome? Or am I overcome?

Do you sometimes feel beaten down, tossed around, pushed (or blown) back and forth? I know I do, and so this verse is a comfort and encouragement to me:
You are from God, little children, and have overcome them, because greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world.
1 John 4.4
As I said, I don't always feel like I've overcome anything, but reading this verse (actually this whole letter of John's) makes me think about what didn't happen.

I haven't gone off the rails. I still know that true life comes from a relationship with Jesus rather than from having the latest techno-toy, though I sometimes get distracted.

The other thing is this: having overcome, we need not fear. We needn't fear, for example, irrevocably losing our way. We needn't fear that our lives will go to waste (unless we want them to, and even then I'm not so sure). We needn't fear that we'll be rejected at the end.

And just to be clear... could we be financially ruined? Sure we could. Might we starve? That's possible. How about getting killed? A moment of inattention at the wrong time is all it takes. Cancer, cardiac arrest, AIDS, Alzheimer's disease - nobody said we'd be immune to any of those. Jesus himself said, "In this world you will have tribulation" (John 16.33). But tribulation need not defeat us.

Greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world. Thank God for that!

posted 05-Dec-2006

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Which John 3.16 is that?

I don't remember exactly where I read this, but whereas John 3.16 is really famous (I won't reproduce it here - OK, I will: For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life), most people don't know 1 John 3.16 or the verses that immediately follow it:
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth.
1 John 3.16-18
Now how's that for a challenging paragraph?

I met someone at church a few months ago. He talked about getting evicted, being out of a job, not getting any help from anyone at church, etc. I asked him if he knew about the church's "benevolence fund", which is used to help people who have hit a rough patch - but isn't intended for chronic or long-term support. He didn't, and I looked into how we figure out who qualifies and so on.

I found out that "Quentin" (not his real name) was already in touch with the folks who could assess his situation and decide whether it matched the purpose of the benevolence fund. I suppose they told Quentin about some possibilities that he didn't want to pursue - perhaps they referred him to "Hotel de Zink," a program for homeless people. But I don't know because I didn't follow up with him.

Which I probably should have. But we were busy with church activities, kids' activities, bills, and so on, and I supposed (as I still do) that Quentin may have brought these problems on himself - which would certainly make me feel uncomfortable. I should have stayed in touch with him, though. Then, rather than supposing, I would know what was up with him. And I would also know that I did what compassion requires, rather than knowing, as I do now, that I didn't do enough.

posted 05-Dec-2006

Marriage is one of them things that don't come natural

Today we went to a wedding ceremony. Carol had asked me yesterday if I really wanted to go, because it was a ways away. "I think it's important to go," I told her.

"Can you tell me why you think it's important that we go?" she asked. No, I couldn't. We know the bride's parents, and we were shocked a few years ago when they got a divorce. Which is a story in itself -- a story for another day.

This morning we got in the car at 8:20, and we got to the church two hours later. The parking lot was full, but we got a (probably legal) spot just outside. I noticed that just about all the women wore black, ah, bandanas? over their hair. The congregation seemed somehow from early in the last century.

Inside, we saw a woman that was a dead ringer for the bride's mother - about 20 years ago. Which is who we mistook her for. She was, of course, one of the bride's sisters. Another sister gave us a big smile and said, "you are very welcome here." I surely felt her sincerity.

After a brief pause inside, an usher asked our names. They were checked against a list, and another usher led us to some "generic" seats. We noticed that the left side was mostly women and the right was mostly men. The building was new. There were no musical instruments, but I did see a wall-clock. Precisely at 10:30, a single note sounded softly from a pitch-pipe, and about two dozen male voices started the first of four old-time hymns, each one full of important truths about God.

Carol said afterwards that some of the men looked happy and some just looked repressed. Maybe they don't know or can't express their feelings, but for some of these guys, those old songs are probably a significant part of what keeps them in the faith.

She also noticed that there was no choir director. No robes. No neckties that I could see, though most of the men had suit jackets on.

The sermon was in some ways nothing to write home about. It wasn't given in what any of your English teachers would have called Standard American English (today's title is a verbatim quote). There wasn't much structure to it. Delivery was a little choppy.

But! It was genuine, and it came from the preacher's heart. The Scriptures were read. And in the remarks both before and afterward, our attention was directed to what the Lord might be saying to us.

The wedding ceremony was part of the worship service, and the wedding vows were very short, very traditional.

It was about two hours for the whole service, in other words about twice as long as the typical weekend service at our home church. They fed us afterwards - sliced tri-tip and pickles and rolls and potatoes and a Jell-O fruit salad and pie and ice cream. Water and iced tea and hot coffee to drink.

We talked to both the bride's parents after the whole thing. Her mother has apparently moved a lot closer to God in the past few years. Her dad seems to have done the reverse.

We got back home a little under eight hours after we left this morning.

Saturday, December 02, 2006


Somewhere I heard that lions hunt in teams. One lion roars on the side of the path. The prey flees the roaring sound, heading to the other side... right into the teeth and claws of the other lion. In a similar way, overconfidence is dangerous, but it would be a mistake to go too far in the other direction. Paul mentioned this in Ephesians, where he talked about being tossed to and fro by every passing wind. Here in 1 John 2, John assures his readers that they already know enough to think for themselves.
But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth. I do not write to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it and because no lie comes from the truth.
1 John 2.20-21
Besides assuring them that they know the truth, he tells them how to tell a false teacher from a true one:
Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist - he denies the Father and the Son.
1 John 2.22
What does it mean to deny that Jesus is the Christ? One obvious way is if someone says, "Jesus is not the Christ," or "Christ has not come yet."

Are there less obvious ways? Do I live my life as though Jesus were irrelevant to me? I hope not, but I'm not 100% sure that 100% of the time I'm as aware of him as I should be.

Fortunately, our relationship with God doesn't depend on performance! John is more concerned that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you. (verse 24). And that we don't follow somebody who wants to convince us otherwise.

posted 05-Dec-2006

Friday, December 01, 2006

Self-confidence considered harmful

In the latter half of the last century, in the 1960s or maybe the early 70s, one of the pioneers of computer science wrote an essay about the "go to" statement. Because of publication scheduling, the essay was printed, in the Communications of the ACM I believe, in the form of a Letter to the Editor. The title was: "Goto statement considered harmful."

Programmers of the day were apparently addicted to that programming construct, which, according to the essay, was actually a symptom and a result of bad programming practice.

So with apologies to Professor Dijkstra, I take today's reading from the proverbs and make a vaguely analogous claim.
He who trusts in himself is a fool
but he who walks in wisdom is kept safe.
Proverbs 28.26
Self-esteem and self-confidence are the "goto statements" of pop psychology. Our schools try to build kids' self-esteem, sometimes ridiculously. A recent survey comparing both the self-confidence and performance on scientific tasks showed that American kids were at once the most confident and least proficient!

To call self-confidence harmful is an overstatement, but it's surely self-evident that over-confidence brings trouble.

Trusting in myself - to the extent that I forget that I need God - that's where I get into trouble.

Having no confidence whatsoever is a trap, too, and John talks about who we can trust, as I think we'll see in the next few days.

Meanwhile, I want to remember to be humble, to seek wisdom from others, to remember that I don't already have all the answers.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Rebuke, Truth, Confession, Forgiveness

I don't know how carefully Tyndale (the folks who publish the One Year Bible) try to make each day's readings fit together, but days like today make me think it's not just coincidence:

Proverbs 28.23: He who rebukes a man will afterward find more favor than he who flatters with the tongue

1 John 1.7-9: If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

Well, maybe it is. The proverbs do talk a lot about wise living - about doing what's right rather than what's simply expedient (note that favor comes "afterward" - the NIV has "in the end": it's what's good in the long run). And 1 John talks a lot about the truth. When I was in college, over 30 years ago now, someone told me that the Greek word for "truth" was the same word translated "reality". So John is talking about living according to the truth - that is, living according to reality. And if that's not wise living, I don't know what is.

Anyway, this passage from 1 John is a great one to live by. If I want to be cleansed from all sin, from all unrighteousness, then it looks like the thing to do is
  • walk in the light
  • not deny that I have sin
  • confess my sins
What does it mean to walk in the light? For one thing, when information comes my way, do I welcome it, or do I get mad and defensive? Do I take it as an opportunity to change my thinking, my habits and practices, or do I make it out to be an insult or a personal attack?

If I walk in the light and accept new information - in particular if I accept reproof graciously, that will help others to feel safe in giving me the rebukes that I need.

Then I can confess my sins and find forgiveness.

The temptation, of course, is to seek excuses rather than forgiveness. Of course forgiveness is better, because in my heart of hearts I know I'm actually guilty.

I wanted to mention one other temptation: sometimes when I remember this verse, I somehow think it means "if we feel bad enough about our sins for long enough, he will forgive...." This of course is nonsense. It's good to recognize sin for what it is, but the truth is that forgiveness (and cleansing) come when I confess.

And wouldn't that be nice - to be both forgiven and made clean!

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The end of the world is coming... so what?

Peter tells us in his second letter that the heavens and the earth will be destroyed by fire. He warns us about scoffers who will come in the last days.

But let's say that we do get some detailed information about what's coming up next; so what? Peter tells us about that, too:
The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.
from 2 Peter 3.10-13
In other words, the "So what?" is this:
  • Live holy and godly lives
  • Look forward to the day of God
  • speed its coming (whatever that means)
  • Look forward to a new heaven and a new earth (the home of righteousness)
. That last one reminds me of something we read a few weeks ago, about people longing for a better country, and about God's feeling toward them: he's proud to be called their God.

Why is that? Why is he so excited by people longing for the heavenly country, the heavenly kingdom? I think it's something to do with faith. When we believe him (about the new heavens, a heavenly country, rewards for the righteous, etc.) it gives him glory and honor. So if I look forward to that heavenly country, if I obey God because I believe what he says, if I give to the poor because I figure I'm lending to the Lord, if I dream kingdom dreams, heavenly dreams, rather than dreaming only of a bigger house or a fancier car... then I honor him in my heart and bring pleasure to him. And how cool is that?

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Drinking while Babylon's Invaded

I guess the original phrase was "fiddling while Rome burned" but this happened some centuries before that. Belshazzar, the last king of the Babylonian Empire, threw a big party - there were a thousand guests - on the last evening of his life. You may remember the story: a hand appears, mysterious words appear on the wall, Daniel interprets them. And
That very night Belshazzar, king of the Babylonians, was slain, and Darius the Mede took over the kingdom at the age of sixty-two.
Daniel 5.30-31
The really surprising thing here, to me at least, is that this guy was having a banquet as his kingdom was slipping away. What was that about? Were his communications and control systems so broken-down that he had no idea about the invaders already well inside his territory?

Or did he realize that he was "rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic" so to speak -- knew he was sunk and decided to have a party so as to go out with a bang?

The text doesn't tell us. To me, Belshazzar's party looks like irresponsible arrogance: either he's overconfident and disastrously so, or he doesn't care enough about his life and his kingdom.

But it occurs to me, as I read this passage thousands of years later, that maybe the kingdom was already lost, and maybe Belshazzar already knew that his cause was hopeless. Maybe the force was so overwhelming that fighting would have been useless anyway.

And maybe he knew exactly how far away Darius's forces were, and when they'd arrive -- but threw a party anyway. He rewarded Daniel for decoding the mysterious message on the wall (the short version being: "You blew it, and now you're losing the kingdom") without further comment; that's consistent with this idea.

The day will come for each one of us -- the "last square" as Lewis Smedes calls the last day of his life. I hope that for you and for me, the assessment will be better than "weighed on the scales and found wanting."

What must we do to avoid that? The text doesn't tell us that either, though we might glean a few hints from it. Belshazzar apparently reigned over two years (8.1 refers to "the third year of King Belshazzar's reign") but there is nothing about any of his accomplishments. He apparently didn't keep very close track of his staff, as the queen had to introduce Daniel to him (5.10).

I'm going to guess that Belshazzar was found wanting because he basically didn't do anything -- didn't like staff meetings so didn't hold them, didn't like travel so he didn't keep track of the border defenses, and so on. He shirked his responsibilities, in other words. So to avoid his judgment, the word that comes to mind is "diligence." Or as we read in Hebrews a few weeks back,
And we want each one of you to show the same earnestness in realizing the full assurance of hope until the end, that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.
Hebrews 6.11-12

posted 11/29

Monday, November 27, 2006

Make every effort...

Today's New Testament reading includes this exhortation from 2 Peter 1:
[M]ake every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love.
2 Peter 1.5-7
Peter is telling us here to practice goodness, to grow in knowledge, and so on. Paul prays some of these things for us, but Peter is saying that we don't just pray for these and forget it; rather, we should make every effort to move in the direction that God wants us to grow in.

The phrase "make every effort" sounded familiar, and sure enough there are several other places in the New Testament where we're told to "make every effort...":
  • ... to be found spotless, blameless, and at peace with him (2 Peter 3.14)
  • ... to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12.14)
  • ... to enter that rest, so that no one will fail by following their example of disobedience (Hebrews 4.11)
  • ... to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace (Ephesians 4.3)
  • ... to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification (Romans 14.19)
  • ... to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. (Luke 13.24)

Well, I'm not sure how useful that was. But back to today's passage. Right after this exhortation to add knowledge to faith and so on, Peter tells us that if we're growing in these qualities, we'll be useful and fruitful. Recently I heard in a sermon the idea that our job now is to go along with what the Spirit is doing in our lives -- basically to cooperate with, rather than resist, the Holy Spirit. I think this is part of how we grow in all those qualities. Yes, we can study the Scriptures, but we must also ask the Spirit to reveal to us their true meaning. As for goodness, self-control, and so on... those sound to me like fruit of the Spirit.

So cooperate with the Spirit. And become fruitful and useful.

Sounds like a plan!

Sunday, November 26, 2006

A perfect turkey - and next year's plan

The kids do not like stuffing, and we probably shouldn't eat it, so...

So I saw something in the paper ... no, it was instructions I heard on NPR for roasting a turkey. I've brined and butterflied a chicken before, for a recipe involving chicken and potatoes.
  1. Dissolve:
    • 1 c kosher salt
    • ½ c sugar
    in 2 qts water. Immerse bird and refrigerate about an hour.
  2. Preheat oven to 500°F with rack in lower middle position.
  3. Take a broiler pan, and line the bottom with foil. Spray with PAM™ or similar.
  4. Remove chicken from brine; rinse thoroughly
  5. Butterfly the chicken. Flatten breastbone. Position it on broiler-pan top and pat dry
  6. Peel
    • about 1kg potatoes
    and slice 3-5mm thick.
  7. Toss sliced potatoes with
    • 1 T olive oil
    • ½ t salt
    • a little pepper
    in a medium bowl
  8. Spread the potatoes evenly in the broiler-pan bottom
  9. Rub the chicken with
    • ½ T olive oil
    • pepper
  10. Place chicken, on broiler-top, atop the broiler-pan bottom (and potatoes)
  11. Roast chicken about 20 minutes, 'til spotty brown.
  12. Rotate pan. When an instant-read thermometer shows 160°F in thickest part of breast, and skin is deep brown (another 20-25 minutes maybe) you're done roasting
  13. Remove chicken to cutting board
  14. Remove broiler-pan top and blot excess oil from potatoes. Invert on (another!) board and peel the foil off the potatoes carefully.
The original recipe had some stuff about seasoned butter, which I never use.

What I did this year was... took a 23# (!) turkey, removed the backbone, and tried to flatten it onto the broiler pan. But I ran into two problems:
  • No mallet, and I hadn't thought of (or read about) using a rolling pin to flatten the bird. So it didn't get flattened.
  • The bird was too big for the broiler-pan! It dripped onto the oven floor.
Skipped brining the bird (too big!) and also skipped the dressing/stuffing.

I ended up roasting it about 4½ hours, starting at 450°F and immediately dropping the temp to about 350°F. I don't have an instant-read thermometer but pulled the bird out when the thickest part of the breast read a shade under 170°F. I did cover the breast with foil for about half the roasting time.

The bird came out just about perfect.

The plan for next year

Let's get about a 14# bird. I'll brine it (it'll actually fit in a pot that fits in the fridge) and actually flatten it. Maybe I'll run the oven at 450°F the whole time like the NPR recipe said, not dropping the temp to 350° at all.

And I'll make a quart of gravy instead of just two cups.

And I think I'll double the green bean casserole recipe too. For the uninitiated:
Combine in a casserole:
  • 2 (15-oz) cans French style sliced green beans
  • 1 can (10 oz?) cream of mushroom soup undiluted
  • half a small can of French fried onions
and bake at 350°F for a while, covered or not.

About 15 minutes before serving, remove cover (if you covered it in the first place) and sprinkle the rest of the fried onions atop the bean/soup mixture.

Remove from oven and serve hot

Like I said, I probably want to double that casserole recipe.

What Does God Want?

Today's New Testament reading includes 1 Peter 5, which has this great verse in it:
Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you at the proper time
1 Peter 5.6
There's stuff before and after this verse, and many Sunday School students memorize them: clothe yourself with humility - that's good, and cast your care upon him because he cares for you - that's also good.

But the part I'm excited about here is the little phrase I have highlighted above (in an awful color, I admit) -- that God wants to exalt us (the NIV says "lift you up in due time"); he does not want to crush or humiliate us.

Isn't that cool? The idea that God wants to lift us up, that he wants to exalt us -- that sounds like good news to me. And something to be thankful for.

Because there are lots of people who want to put you down. Sometimes the "lots of people" even includes yourself, doesn't it? But not God. He wants to lift you up.

It reminds me of when Jesus said, "Don't take the best place at the table; take a lower position, and then the host will say to you, 'Friend, move up to a better place.'" (Luke 14.10) I don't think Jesus was talking only about parties here on earth.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Ha! I'm back!

I sent my article in to Linux Journal almost two hours ago, so I'm back! It was three weeks ago that I took a short(?) break from these daily essays so I could write that article, and it's now done. I'll tell you all about it if it's accepted for publication.

Well, today's reading covers chapter 1 and about half of chapter 2 of the book of Daniel. Some years ago, when I decided that my former employer, particularly the boss, was behaving immorally and unethically, I contemplated leaving that company. I mentioned this to my friend Randy, who pointed out that Daniel worked for a corrupt boss, too. Good point, that.

King Nebuchadnezzar was egotistical, violent, and an idolater, but Daniel served him faithfully. It's interesting to note where Daniel draws the line, and where he doesn't. The Israelites are given food and wine from the king's table (1.5), and Daniel doesn't want to eat the rich stuff which he feels would defile him.
But Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine, and he asked the chief official for permission not to defile himself this way.
Daniel 1.8
What exactly was the defilement Daniel was trying to avoid? Perhaps he was a Nazirite, sworn to avoid drinking wine? Did the food include bacon or prawns? The text doesn't say. Perhaps Daniel wanted to distance himself from Jehoiachin, a king of Judah who ate regularly at the table of the king of Babylon (2 Kings 25.29)?

Whatever the reason, Daniel drew a line there. But the text doesn't tell us anything about the matter of the astrologers. Daniel is numbered among the "wise men" (2.13), that is, among the magicians, enchanters, astrologers (2.10). In tomorrow's reading, it appears that Daniel is made head over all these "wise men" - the astrologers, magicians, enchangers, diviners all report to him! And nothing in the text suggests that Daniel tries to reform the curriculum of instruction, engage the astrologers in debate about the true nature of events, or anything like this.

Well, my wife and daughter are back from their evening out, and it's about my bedtime. More tomorrow!