Wednesday, January 31, 2007

...and everything you ask for in prayer, believing, you will receive

Really? I memorized that verse, Matthew 21.22, some years ago, but I don't really understand it. I mean, the Bible says that asking with wrong motives will mess things up (James 4), and that asking according to God's will (1 John 5) is important. But here in Matthew, it just says, “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” (Matthew 21.22). How can this be?

Here's my take on it. How can we have this kind of faith? How can we be so sure (verse 21 has if you have faith and do not doubt) that what we're praying will happen? I have two possible answers.

First: this comes from God; he might speak to someone in a way that is utterly convincing: "I will do this."

Second: this verse shouldn't be taken alone to form your understanding of prayer. Other verses, from James and John among others, and the experiences of the saints recorded in Acts and in the letters (I'm thinking especially of 2 Corinthians 12) must also be considered. This isn't exactly a cop-out; Jesus is recorded as saying that "Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her" (Mark 10.11), but Matthew 19.9 has him offering an exception: "I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery." (Matthew 19.9).

So it appears that Jesus sometimes says things that he intends for us to take along with other things. He sometimes seems to say extreme things to make a point, and the trouble is that we think he's making a dozen points when he's only making one or two.

Looking at the context, it's right after the fig tree incident and before the elders confront him on his authority. That makes me think his point is this:

The most powerful force that mattered to Jesus's disciples was the existing religious order. This order was opposed to Jesus and his followers, and appeared to be immovable - like a mountain. I think he was saying that no force in all the universe was too powerful to thwart the will of God and the power of prayer. And that faith with prayer would be required -- probably you need help from God in that department, too (I certainly do).

And fortunately, our God is willing and able!

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Reality 1, Denial 0

The other night Carol and I saw The Pursuit of Happyness, based somewhat on the book of the same name. The hero, Chris, drove me batty for the first half of the show; he constantly said things would be OK, though taxes weren't paid and they were 3 months behind on the rent. He worked hard and persevered, but he had to move, first to a motel and then into homeless shelters. The story has a happy ending, but his denial of reality made his situation worse.

Pharaoh king of Egypt had the same issue: he didn't like the way things were going in his confrontation with Moses, but his stubbornness made the situation a whole lot worse. You may remember that Moses asked Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go; when Pharaoh refused, Moses started with a few demonstrations of power. Pharaoh summoned sorcerers etc., and "the magicians did the same things by their secret arts...." (Exodus 8.7 inter alia).

At some point, Moses and Aaron did things that the magicians couldn't do, and more destructive things, too. Hail came, destroying crops and killing livestock. Moses told Pharaoh to let the people go, lest locusts come and devour what little was left. It was at this point that ...
Pharaoh's officials said to him, "How long will this man be a snare to us? Let the people go, so that they may worship the Lord their God. Do you not yet realize that Egypt is ruined?"
Exodus 10.7
Incredibly enough, Pharaoh ignores his officials; locusts, darkness, and thousands upon thousands of deaths follow. Reality seems to have a way of barging in on our fantasies.

And so it is today: people don't save money, but they're hoping to send their kids to college, or to retire. Or both. The typical father talks with his children a few seconds a day, but he thinks it's several minutes. Looking back, I see that I've said many thoughtless and hurtful things, while yet thinking myself a nice guy.

I guess that's why we should ask God to help us to be unlike Pharaoh -- that we would pay attention to reality, listen to God, be willing to change course when we've made mistakes.

If you're like me, that's hard to do. Who likes admitting he's been wrong? So I think we also need strength from God to accept the truth as well -- something else to ask him for!

Monday, January 29, 2007

Feeling older...

Without my usual train rides last week, my not-quite-daily essay became even less daily. then what happened this weekend? Saturday the elder teen and I went to do some painting at Flood School. There was indoor and outdoor work to do, and we got assigned to indoor. There were too many people in one of the rooms so I went to another, and was assigned to paint behind a big ventilation pipe. The previous crew used rollers so they couldn't get to the edges or corners, and especially they couldn't get behind the pipe. It took quite a while longer than it looked like it should.

One of the volunteers had arrived just a few weeks ago; her husband is an undergrad at Stanford, and she's a graduate of some college in Oklahoma. Married students' housing is where they live. "Escondido Village?" I asked. Yep.

So she asked me where I went to school and what I studied. I told her about getting an MSEE (courtesy of my former employer) in 1980. I looked at her and said, "You weren't even born then, were you?" Nope; 1984.

Feeling a little older....

Saturday, January 27, 2007

What's happened this week...

Friday was only the second day this week I took the train to work. Tuesday I had breakfast with a friend and went for an individual appointment with our counselor in Belmont. Wednesday I drove to work in order to get to Rich's funeral at 3:30. And yesterday I was on the hook for taking the younger teen to the doctor.

I've mentioned our counselor before - she does the theophostic thing besides having the usual training and license. If you believe in Jesus and need to discuss personal issues with someone, you could do a lot worse than to talk to Susan Fisher. (Whoa, Google points me at San Mateo; another person maybe?) She's talked with both Carol and me, individually and together, and so she's got a pretty good idea of what we're up to.

Rich's funeral service - "Celebrating the life of Rich Girerd" - was, well, I won't say it was fun, but it was good. I met Rich in the '80s but didn't know him all that well. We lost touch and then I saw him occasionally at church. Several people spoke at the memorial service; I was touched by the last one in particular. His voice broke and he had to pause a few times as he spoke.

And it made me think, at whose funeral would I choke up? Is there anyone I've let into my life enough that if I spoke at his funeral, my voice would break? Other than my relatives I mean? Something to think about.

Had a great day Friday: got up early enough to be the first one in the pool at the 'Y', swam 900 yards, drove the kids to school and walked to the train. After work, Carol and I saw "The Pursuit of Happyness," a great story which nevertheless gave me a stomach-ache for the first half or so.

Today the older teen and I helped with painting at Flood School with "2nd Mile" for a couple of hours. The painters were overwhelmingly female -- well, I guess I'm accustomed to being outnumbered...

I'm on the hook to make pancakes today -- ran out too early to do that at breakfast so we'll have them for lunch -- then some cleanup and time to start on taxes!

I hate taxes. I mean, I don't mind paying them, but all the documentation required to deal with filing -- that's a headache.

Friday, January 26, 2007

What's in a name?

OK, quick: what was the name of Moses's father-in-law? Jethro, right? Right. But that's not the name we see the first time he's mentioned. Perhaps you remember the story:
Now a priest of Midian had seven daughters, and they came to draw water and fill the troughs to water their father's flock. Some shepherds came along and drove them away, but Moses got up and came to their rescue and watered their flock. When the girls returned to Reuel their father, he asked them, "Why have you returned so early today?"
Exodus 2.16-18
I don't think we're told why there was a feud between the shepherds and the priest's family, but the thing I noticed here was the guy's name, "Reuel," which I think means "friend of God" in Hebrew.

Why two names? Is this like Simon and Peter, or Saul and Paul? We aren't told the story, but to have even one of my names be "friend of God" would be great. Presumably there was something in his character - I don't think it could have just been his job - that caused him to be called by that name. We know he's a man of hospitality and wisdom, and not much beyond that.

But he was called "friend of God." Am I a friend of God? And if I am, what in my character, in my habits, shows that? Not "what kind of show do I put on?" but "who am I, really?"

posted 1/29

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Not the swiftest

Today's New Testament reading doesn't put the disciples in a very good light. Let's see what happens.
  • Crowds come to Jesus, and he heals many of the people. Then he tells the disciples that he wants to feed them (Matthew 15:32). In the previous chapter, the disciples told Jesus to send a similar crowd away, but instead Jesus took five rolls and two fish and fed the crowd of over 5000. Here we have a smaller crowd and more rolls, but the disciples only manage to say, "Where could we get enough bread in this remote place to feed such a crowd?" (Matthew 15:33). Jesus feeds the crowd in roughly the same way.
  • A little later, Jesus warns them to be on their guard "against the yeast of the Pharisees and Saducees." The disciples say to each other, "It is because we didn't bring any bread." (Matthew 16:6-7). Jesus explains a little more to them, and they finally figure out that he means the "yeast" is the teaching of the Pharisees and Saducees.
I find this passage fascinating. Jesus says these sort of oblique things to them, and they completely don't get it. First, with the crowd. The disciples at least don't tell Jesus to send everybody away (the way they did in chapter 14). But when he says he has compassion on the crowd, the disciples don't even recognize that they're in the same situation: deserted place, big crowds healed by Jesus, people need something to eat. If they did, perhaps they might have said, "Hey, last time Jesus fed the whole place with five loaves and two fish! Maybe this time he'll do the same thing? Let's ask him!"

But they don't do that.

Then he says something about the "yeast of the Pharisees and Saducees" and they think he's talking about bread. These guys are really something.

Now, why do you suppose we get all this detail about how the disciples so often miss what Jesus says? Here's a possibility.

Have you ever gone through a difficult period, when you
  • forgot to think about God; or
  • didn't know what God wanted you to do; or
  • couldn't understand what God was saying to you?
Did you ever feel kind of dumb or incompetent afterward?

I think that it's because of people like us that the Holy Spirit wanted this particular passage recorded. Think you're sometimes too silly or too self-absorbed or uneducated to be used by God?

Read this passage... and think again:
"Be careful," Jesus said to them. "Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees."

They discussed this among themselves and said, "It is because we didn't bring any bread."

Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked, "You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? Do you still not understand? Don't you remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? .... How is it you don't understand that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees."

Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
from Matthew 16:6-12

Monday, January 22, 2007

Judah grows up

Today's Old Testament reading has a bizarre story. Joseph, still incognito as an Egyptian official, plays a trick on his brothers: he has his steward put a silver cup into Benjamin's sack. Then, as the brothers head home, Joseph sends the same steward out to arrest the man who "stole" his master's cup. Of course it's Benjamin. The distraught brothers return to the city, and Judah offers to be made a slave in Benjamin's place.

It's at this point that
... Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, "Have everyone leave my presence!" So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him, and Pharaoh's household heard about it.
Genesis 45.1-2
What's this about? Why does he play such a nasty trick on them, and why is it at this point that he loses control?

I think the answers are found in Genesis 37, when Joseph's brothers were angry with him, and some of them wanted to kill him. At that time, Judah said it would be better to sell him as a slave, which is what they did. Is that why Joseph is so mean to them now, because they were so mean to him? I don't think that fits the rest of the story.

Somewhere I read the theory that Joseph set up the situation with Benjamin, parallel to his own situation, to see whether his brothers had changed at all. And look at who offered himself to be a slave in Benjamin's place. What a change! Judah gets the highly coveted "greatly exceeds expectations" award, and that's why Joseph can't control himself any longer.

Much has been written about Joseph's example and his growth, but what I notice here is how Judah grows and changes.

Which is good news for sinners like you and me. Because if a guy like Judah, who sold his brother into slavery, had sex with his son's widow (he thought he was using a prostitute), then threatened to kill her for immorality -- if a guy like that could repent and become the ancestor of King David and of Jesus Christ -- well, then you and I can turn from the past and serve the Lord by doing good. And that's good news.

posted 1/26

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Hangups → Tactlessness

Faced with famine, Jacob sent ten of his sons to Egypt to buy food. They are accused of being spies, and an Egyptian official questions them about their family. This official (actually their brother Joseph, incognito) insists that they bring their youngest brother on their next trip to Egypt.

They return home and eat everything they've bought; pretty soon it's time to go back to Egypt to buy more. They remind Jacob that they must take Benjamin with them.
But Jacob said, "My son will not go down there with you; his brother is dead and he is the only one left. If harm comes to him on the journey you are taking, you will bring my gray head down to the grave in sorrow."
Genesis 42.38
Now what is that about? It's OK for you to go down there, but not "my son"?? Besides Joseph, Simeon and Benjamin, Jacob had nine other sons and a daughter. What does he mean, "he is the only one left"?

What he means is that Rachel, his favorite wife, the only woman he actually wanted, bore him two sons, Joseph and Benjamin. Joseph is gone, and Rachel's only other son, who she died giving birth to, is Benjamin.

Doesn't Jacob realize that his ten other sons are still his sons?

Apparently not. Here's what I think: Jacob was indulging in some self-pity here. He was thinking about the things that had gone wrong with his life. Listen to him in verse 36: You have deprived me of my children.... Everything is against me! It's hard to be upbeat when you're tired and hungry. Fatigue makes cowards of us all, according to Yogi Berra.

Still, I don't think it unfair to say that Jacob should have thought a little about the positives as well. He should have remembered to remember how God brought him safely to the land of his relatives, prospered his flocks and herds, protected him from Laban and Esau (both more powerful than he), gave him visions of angels, and so on.

Though I've not lost any children, haven't suffered famine, haven't had a close relative threaten to kill me and so on, I do sometimes feel tired (or worse) and forget God's blessings. And then I can be an anti-blessing, as Jacob was here to his (other) sons.

May the Lord call us back to him when we start to drift off, and may we listen and respond, so that we can be a blessing to those around us, rather than the opposite.

posted 1/23

Saturday, January 20, 2007

A good day, but not complete

What's not complete around here is... that the lovely Carol is out of town at a Women's retreat.

Well, we had waffles for breakfast this morning. On the last batch, Sheri stirred a pile of chocolate chips into the batter. These were not evenly distributed amongst the four quarters of the waffle iron, so some chocolate waffles were, ah, more equal than others.

Some vacuuming was done. I replaced the filters in the spa, finished filling it, and got it going. The girls enjoyed looking at a new time-sink called "facebook".

Sheri finished up her introductory essay, we had lunch, and then we were off to portfolio day at Academy of Arts University in San Francisco. We got there before her appointment because we thought she might talk with representatives of some other schools, but they weren't there today. So with about 90 minutes before her appointment, we parked the car and went to the SF Museum of Modern Art, a short walk away. There we saw the work of Anselm Kiefer - some enormous pieces. Remarkable.

The fellow reviewing her portfolio was very complimentary of her work, making suggestions on only one of her pieces. He gave us some good tips on assembling her portfolio for the Real Thing.

We followed some of this advice immediately by stopping at Utrecht (the art store), where she bought a portfolio display binder as well as a bunch of canvas boards and such.

I wondered if she wanted to go back to SFMoMA but she was happy to head home. We were talking about dinner, and I suggested picking up some veggies and some shrimp and making... "a stir fry?" she asked. She sounded pretty happy about that. We stopped at Safeway and bought some baby bok choy, a yellow (or orange?) bell pepper, a green pepper, some shrimp (from China), some snacks, and a chocolate milk for Sheri.

We got home and Jenny was already out at morp. Morp is "prom" spelled backwards, and it means "ice skating in prom clothes then having a fancy dinner afterwards". The fancy dinner happened to be at the golden arches, and I guess the only fancy thing about it was the diners' clothes.

I made dinner. All ate and were satisfied. Then, maybe around seven, Jenny came in the front door. Duke was too excited about licking our dinner dishes to notice. When she called out "I'm home!" he ran toward the patio door, breaking the law as usual, but nobody was there! Jenny told him where she was, so he made the necessary "corrections" and greeted her with his usual sloppy kiss.

We watched "Dave," borrowed from my niece. A feel-good movie, a comedy/romance. A little sappy. Some of them live happily ever after. I think the president's doctor would be very confused and very embarrassed at the end, though.

Well, with the lovely Carol gone, I hate going to bed, which is why I'm not there yet. I will be soon, though.

Wholesome grain and pure...

I've heard that there were two things Jesus did a lot: tell stories, and ask questions. One of the most famous stories Jesus told was about a farmer scattering seeds. When his disciples asked him what the story meant, he explained it and then launched into another parable, which is where today's New Testament reading begins:
Jesus told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away.
Matthew 13.24-25
When the plants sprout, Jesus says, it becomes evident that weeds were sown, but all the plants are left to grow together, lest weeding damage the good grain.
Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.' "
Matthew 13.30
Jesus explains later on that the good seed represents the "sons of the kingdom" and the weeds are the "sons of the evil one" (Matthew 13.38).

This is what that old hymn talks about:
Wheat and tares together sown
unto joy or sorrow grown.
First the blade and then the ear,
then the full corn shall appear;
Lord of harvest, grant that we
wholesome grain and pure may be.
Come, Ye Thankful People, Come
Henry Alford, 1844
Well, that's what we want, isn't it -- to be the wholesome grain rather than the weeds.

How can we tell, though? In the parable, the good and bad plants look alike until they reach a certain stage of maturity -- yet their true nature doesn't change. Reading the parable, I don't get the picture that either plant has any doubts to its true nature -- unlike you or me or the author of the hymn.

What I mean is, though I usually don't worry whether I'm a son of the kingdom or not, sometimes, when I reflect upon the way I sometimes think, or upon some of the selfish or thoughtless things I've done... well, to tell you the truth, I'm not always sure. And the last line I quoted from the hymn, Lord of harvest, grant that we / wholesome grain and pure may be, makes me think that Henry Alford wasn't 100% sure 100% of the time either.

One thing is for sure, though: for you or me to be "a son of the kingdom," we have to be adopted by the king.

By the way, two comments on that word "son":
  • Some decades ago, when Peg Cantwell was teaching at our church, she read from Ephesians. When she got to the part about being adopted as sons, she added "male and female."
  • I read somewhere that the New Testament uses the word translated "son" to emphasize the relationship with God but another word, translated "child", to talk about the fact of birth.
Anyway, male or female, "wholesome grain and pure" is what we want to be.

And how to become one? It's not something you or I can do on our own -- what we do is to ask. Rather, God is offering, and what we do is accept.

Remembering that, just now as I'm finishing up this essay, I find doubts vanishing. I asked, didn't I? He pursued me when I ran from him, and I stopped running one day and told him, "Yes, Lord" and at that moment I became an adopted son of the kingdom. A good thing to remember, and a good thing to know.

Friday, January 19, 2007

What does my boss see?

"Joseph was a young man with eleven older brothers," says the John Hartford song (did he write that song or just sing it?). It's a great song if not entirely accurate (for example, he had ten older brothers; one was younger), summarizing his story: the coat, being sold by his brothers, slavery and attempted seduction by his master's wife, time in jail, dream interpretation, and so on. You really should hear it, especially if you like bluegrass music.

This part of the story impressed me so much that I committed it to memory:
Now his master saw that the Lord was with him, and how the Lord caused everything he did to prosper.
Genesis 39.3
How did his master, Potiphar, see that the Lord was with Joseph? It doesn't say that Joseph talked about the Lord, though I suppose he must have mentioned his name occasionally at least. When things went well, did Joseph praise the Lord? Did he pray in public?

I'm actually not kidding here; I want to know myself what to do so that my boss and my colleagues know that the Lord is with me, and that he is the source of any "success" I might have.

Here is what I have so far. Sheri, the younger teen, made a mobile, a decoration, which now hangs in my office. Part of it is in the shape of a cross, and "faithful to God" is written on it. I have a Bible in my office, among my other books. My e-mails have Matthew 5.7 at the bottom. Anyone who knows me at all knows that I attend church and pray regularly.

Anyway, that's what I have come up with so far. I do not mention the Lord in the office daily, I don't answer the phone with "Hallelujah" or "Praise the Lord"; I try not to sound "kooky." But how little mention of him is too little? How much is too much?

If you figure it out, I hope you'll let me know.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Careless words

How often I wish I could do over a bad decision, or especially that I could take back a careless word! Someone has pointed out that God created the sun, moon, and stars with a word, he created the seas and sky with a word, and he created life on earth with a word -- and that, being made in God's image, we were also given the power of words.

That power can be used for good or ill, and as this passage says, whether it's good or bad reflects the internal condition of the heart:
The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.
Matthew 12.35-37
Looking at the last part of that passage, my reaction was to ask, "What can I say today that will push the balance toward acquittal?"

But that's wrong on two counts. First, the Bible doesn't say that good words are weighed against bad words and that judgment is based on that sort of comparison. Second, the Bible does say that the words reflect the heart -- hence the judgment is based on the heart, as reflected by the words.

And while I can imagine having control over my words (but this too is probably a vain imagining), I have no illusions that I can control the way my heart is. From the point of view of human sufficiency (or in the eyes of the human potential movement) this is Bad News. But from the perspective of leading me closer to God, it's a powerful corrective.
Lord, I'm helpless to change my own heart. I am self-centered, weak, and easily distracted. Send your Spirit I pray, and change me as the potter re-shapes a bad pot on the wheel to make it a thing of beauty. And what you don't change in me, I pray that you would use to bring glory to you.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Going off the rails

Once I heard an odd story about a famous golfer. His name escapes me, which is probably how he likes it, but anyway, he was confronted by a tearful woman. Her son was in the hospital with some terrible condition -- she went into some detail -- but with a few thousand dollars he could get a life-saving treatment. He wrote her a check.

Later, friends told him that he'd been had. "You mean, there isn't some terrible condition killing her son? He's not going to die?" Nope. "That is the best news I've heard all week!"

I don't know if the story is true, but I'm certainly impressed by the fellow's charity.

Now what if his friends refused to understand his perspective? What if they were so "stuck" on how he had been deprived of those thousands (which, as he says, he'd never miss among his millions) that they couldn't appreciate either his joy nor his sense of humor?

Today's New Testament passage reminded me of that story. Matthew chapter 12 begins with an argument about the Sabbath. Some words are exchanged. Jesus goes to the synagogue
and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, they asked him, "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?"

He said to them, "If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath."

Then he said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other.

But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.
Matthew 12.10-14
There is something awfully pitiful about this story. The man with one useless hand -- these Pharisees didn't care about him at all. And who did they think actually did the healing? How is it that they didn't recognize that God himself was behind it?

Now my understanding is that the Pharisees originally started out as religious reformers; these were the guys who wanted worship of the Lord to be done with sincerity and purity. How did they get so far off? The healing (which delights the heart of God) made no impression on them at all; and rather than rejoicing, they started plotting to kill Jesus -- a violation of one of the Ten Commandments.

I don't know the details, but generally, they went off the rails a little at a time. It wasn't hard. I know because it's easy enough for me to drift away. Any of us could. I used to know a professional evangelist -- he made his living telling people the good news about Jesus Christ! One day he left. Left his wife and four children. Left the church. Today he wipes his mouth and says, "I've done nothing wrong."

Friends, any of us is capable of this - no one is immune.
And lead us not into temptation
But deliver us from the evil [one]...

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

A "Spelling" Test

Once, in elementary school, I flunked a spelling test. Here is how it happened.
Several days before the test, the teacher handed out the word list. I looked at the list and said to myself, "These words are easy. I know how to spell these words," and promptly forgot about it.

On the day of the test, the teacher told us to close our books. Then she said something like "Take out a sheet of paper. Now write down the spelling words."

Then we answered the teacher, "O teacher, live forever! Tell your students the words, and we will spell them."

The teacher replied to the students, "This is what I have firmly decided: If you do not tell me what the words were and spell them, I will have you cut into pieces and your houses turned into piles of rubble. But if you tell me the words and spell them, you will receive from me gifts and rewards and great honor. So tell me the words and spell them for me."

Once more they replied, "Let the teacher tell her students the words, and we will spell them."

Then the teacher answered, "I am certain that you are trying to gain time, because you realize that this is what I have firmly decided: If you do not tell me the words, there is just one penalty for you. You have conspired to tell me misleading and wicked things, hoping the situation will change. So then, tell me the words, and I will know that you can spell them for me."

The students answered the teacher, "There is not a boy or girl on earth who can do what the teacher asks! No teacher, however great and mighty, has ever asked such a thing of any student. What the teacher asks is too difficult. No one can reveal it to the teacher except the gods, and they do not come to this school."

This made the teacher so angry and furious that she flunked them all.
Somewhere in there was a transition from the true story into fantasy. It was silly, but when I started to describe this version to my daughters this morning, they encouraged me to write it up. Or down.

If the text looks somewhat familiar (modulo a couple of substitutions) it's because it comes from Daniel chapter 2.

Two reasons, only two

I think it was a quarter-century ago or more, but someone told me that there are only two reasons for doing anything:
  1. You want to do it.
  2. God wants you to do it.
At first I thought, "That's too simple," but then I tried to think of a third valid reason.

Couldn't come up with one. I mean, "I don't wanna do this problem set but I want to get a good grade in the class" is just a tradeoff, which I claim falls under #1, because I want the result and therefore put up with the requirements. And "If I don't, my friend (or whoever) will be unhappy with me" is like that: I may hate the opera, but if a harmonious relationship with an opera-lover is high on my list, then....

And "My parents want me to do it" may or may not be valid, but if it is, it might come under #2 because of the command to "Honor your father and mother... that you may live long and that it may go well with you..." (Deuteronomy 5.16). And the same reasoning may apply to input from spiritual or other leaders, if what they want is within what the Lord wants and within the scope of the authority that I'm under.

Perhaps this is what Jesus means when he says,
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
Matthew 11.28-30
When he says "Take my yoke," does that mean I can quit washing the dishes, writing reports, or filling the tank? Not unless I want to be jobless, stranded at the roadside out of gas, miles from a sink full of dirty dishes!

No, I think the point is that all those things that I do because I think somebody else wants me to, or because "that's the way we've always done it" or because it "must" be done -- some of those might not be what Jesus has in mind, and if I've taken his yoke, I'm not forced by that other yoke to do all those things.

Which in spite of the burden of choice, is good news.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Be afraid, or not?

Today's New Testament reading has a really interesting section that I'd like to think about with you. Jesus is giving instructions to twelve of his disciples (Matthew 10:5), and after he's said they might be flogged, arrested, betrayed unto death, hated, and so on, then he comes to this part:
“So do not be afraid of them. There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.
Matthew 10:26-31
So... the passage begins and ends with "do not be afraid." And in between, it says not to be afraid even of death but rather to fear "the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell."

This is really interesting. Who is that one? The NIV editors capitalize "One", so I suppose they think it's God (rather than the devil). We don't hear a lot these days about fearing God, though interestingly enough today's Old Testament reading refers to God as "the Fear" (Genesis 31:53) -- as Buechner does in his marvelous novel Son of Laughter.

There is a temptation here to talk about fear as an Old Testament kind of thing, because many passages about fear are from the Old Testament. Where does it say that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and where does God say, "Do not be afraid of them, lest I terrify you before them"? Yes, those are both in the Old Testament. But as we see here, Jesus didn't have any trouble talking about the fear of the Lord, and he seemed to think it would actually give us courage to face things that aren't worth being afraid of. And the idea of eternal destruction, also mentioned in 2 Thessalonians 1:9, isn't mentioned anywhere in the Old Testament. Then there is this cheery verse from Hebrews: "Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace?" (Hebrews 10:28-29)

Going back to the passage from Matthew, not everything Jesus says there is quite clear to me. But some things are; let's list some of them.
  1. I shouldn't be afraid.
  2. I should tell others what I have learned from Jesus.
  3. My life is in God's hands.
  4. I should not be afraid.
Well, if I remember to apply those truths, I'll have a better day than if I forget them.

Shall we give it a try?

Remembering Dr. King

One year, when I was still working at HP, the personnel people decided to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a company holiday in place of Good Friday. My comment was, "I wonder what Dr. King would have thought about that."

Anyway, I'm taking the day off from my current employer NetApp (a great place to work, by the way) and decided to look at one of Dr. King's speeches. I got kinda choked up listening to it. A 3-minute excerpt is here. There are some subtitles in... Dutch?

More here.

Requiring less in the way of Kleenex® but more in the way of time, is his letter from Birmingham jail, here.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Dysfunctional family?

Jacob has two wives, Leah and Rachel. Two sisters! He didn't plan it that way, but that's what he's got. Leah bears four sons, and Rachel doesn't:
When Rachel saw that she was not bearing Jacob any children, she became jealous of her sister. So she said to Jacob, "Give me children, or I'll die!"
Genesis 30.1
How's that to start off a family discussion? If you thought your family was dysfunctional... well, maybe it is. But let's see what happens next:
  • Rachel gives her maidservant Bilhah to Jacob; she bears two sons. Then Rachel said, "I have had a great struggle with my sister, and I have won." So she named him Naphtali. (from Genesis 30.8)
  • Leah gives her maidservant Zilpah to Jacob; she bears two sons
  • Leah hires Jacob to go to bed with her (Genesis 30.16)! She bears two more sons and a daughter.
So there's competition, prostitution, and discord. It reminds me of that place in the New Testament where James talks about jealousy and selfish ambition leading to disorder and "every evil thing" (James 3.17).

When I read this chapter, it makes me wonder how any man would think it a Good Idea to have two wives -- or in this case two wives and two concubines.

How could all that discord have been avoided? Oh! It just hit me! A few chapters ago, Jacob disguised himself as his brother Esau, and deceived Isaac their father. Now how did Jacob get two wives? Just one chapter back, Jacob made a deal to work seven years for Rachel, but on the wedding night, her father sent her sister Leah into Jacob's tent. The shoe was on the other foot! The tables had been turned! The deceiver was now deceived!

Now, this whole thing might have happened even if Jacob hadn't deceived his father, but I can't help thinking that Jacob learned an important lesson from this experience.

As for me, there is great encouragement in this story. First, that bad guys often get their due. Second, that out of this dysfunctional family came the Savior of the world: Jesus Christ came from the tribe of Judah. In other words, that God's mercy and grace are abundant, yea, even overflowing.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

The harvest truly is plenteous

Tomorrow morning we're slated to do a presentation about prayer in our adult class. Apropos of that, today's New Testament reading includes this passage from Matthew 9:
When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them because they were distressed and downcast, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, "The harvest truly is plenteous, but the laborers are few. Therefore, ask the Lord of the harvest to end forth laborers into his harvest."
Matthew 9.36-38
Jesus says the harvest is plenteous, and indeed more people decide to follow Jesus in any given year than decide to follow anybody or anything else.

And he says the laborers are few, which one can see anywhere.

Then he tells his disciples to pray... for revival? For an outpouring of the Spirit on an unbelieving world? For God to open the eyes of those blinded by the "god of this world"? Nope. Interestingly enough, he tells his disciples to ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers.

We often ask for the eyes of the blind to be opened, for the existing laborers to be strengthened and protected, and so on. But we don't often ask the Lord to send out more laborers. Maybe because we're afraid that we'll be asked to labor in the fields too? But how bad could it be?


Friday, January 12, 2007

Gonna be a good day...

Here's why:
  • Got up in time for a swim at the 'Y'
  • Though I didn't get to the pool right at six, there was a free lane - two actually
  • It's been 2 months since I've been in the pool ('cause of my toe fracture), but swam 600 yards without any trouble.
  • Got out of the house again on time to make my train.
  • Stopped in at the 7-11 and verified that they had the kind of salad dressing we need for tonight
  • When I came out, the train signal was ringing, but the arm came up so I could actually catch the train
  • Finished my "new" 1/10 entry by the time I got to work
  • A jalapeƱo bagel was easily spotted, and nobody was using the toaster. Yet another reason this is such a great place to work! Oh, there's this one too.

OK, it's 8:30am now, better finish my coffee and get to work.

revised 1/15

Every Good Deed Brings Critics

In today's New Testament reading, from Matthew 9, we find Jesus being criticized for doing good. First he meets a paralyzed man, who some friends bring to Jesus.
When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven."

At this, some of the teachers of the law said to themselves, "This fellow is blaspheming!"

Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said, "Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? Which is easier: to say, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Get up and walk'?
from Matthew 9.2-5
Of course the man gets up and walks. The crowd praised God (9.8), but we don't hear much from the critics.

Pretty soon, he invites Matthew to follow him as a disciple, and goes to dinner at his house. No points for guessing what happens next:
When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and 'sinners'?"
Matthew 9.11
Jesus straightens them out but then...
Then John's disciples came and asked him, "How is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?"
Matthew 9.14
Now that doesn't sound so nice -- disciples of John the Baptist criticizing him! What's that about?

What it's about, I'm afraid, is that there's no sure-fire way to avoid criticism, or to avoid being misunderstood. This is important for me to remember, because one of my pain points is being misunderstood (in fact my earliest memory is of not being understood).

And I sometimes think I wouldn't be misunderstood, or I'd avoid some criticism "if only I'd said that more clearly..." or "if I'd said this before doing that...." In other words, "If only I'd done it right, then I'd be safe."

Which is wrong. Jesus never did anything wrong, and here we see he got criticized anyway.

And then they killed him.

So it's good to remember that human understanding is imperfect. And that includes my understanding of others' words and actions -- so I should remember to hold my criticisms as well, because only the Lord knows what's in a man's heart.

written 1/13, posted 1/14

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

A courageous woman

Today's Old Testament reading, from Genesis 24, redefines "arranged marriage." What a story! Abraham is old, he's now a widower, and he wants to find a wife for his son Isaac. So he sends his chief servant to the land of his relatives. This guy, the chief servant, is a man of faith, though when he prays, he addresses the Lord as "God of my master Abraham" (Genesis 24.12).

But what strikes me is Rebekah's courage, her spirit of adventure. One evening she's doing her errands. She shows hospitality to a stranger, as was customary:
The servant hurried to meet her and said, "Please give me a little water from your jar."

"Drink, my lord," she said, and quickly lowered the jar to her hands and gave him a drink. After she had given him a drink, she said, "I'll draw water for your camels too, until they have finished drinking."
Genesis 24.17-19
And the next day she goes with him to be the wife of someone she's never met. She hears what the servant says and she sees his gifts. But she really doesn't know anything about Abraham and Isaac, except what the servant has said. Oh, she knows that Abraham is rich; this guy shows up with "his men" (24.32), ten camels (24.10), impressive jewelry (24.30), and costly gifts (24.53). And she knows that the servant can speak well.

Is she adventurous? Foolhardy? Desperate?

Well, my grandmother was about 17 when she left her home to come to the United States, based on a photo, the promise of adventure, and religious freedom. Was she thinking about Rebekah when she made her decision? I'll have to ask her.

And I think my wife was only a little less adventurous when she threw in her lot with me. The pastor at our wedding said that the price paid by the wife is that of risk. Little did she know what her life with me would hold, back when she told me, "Yes."

posted 1/11
OOPS! Originally posted as 1/10 reading, then marked as 1/11 because I mistakenly thought it was from the 1/11 Old Testament reading. But 1/10 is correct....

If you are willing...

Jesus gives a great sermon on the mountain (the greatest sermon of all time?), and today's New Testament reading begins immediately after that:
When he came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, "Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean."

Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. "I am willing," he said. "Be clean!" Immediately he was cured of his leprosy.
Matthew 8.1-3
There really are only two questions when we're asking God for something:
  1. Are you able to do this for me? and
  2. Are you willing to do this for me?
This man with leprosy was clear on the first question but not really sure of the second.

This may not be considered politic, but I believe this man is a great model for us. Is God able to cure my loved one's health problems? You bet he is! He still does it today; I've seen it. Is God willing to work a miracle whenever we ask him? Not necessarily!

This brings up a lot of questions: why is it that some get healed and others don't? Why is it that some people seem to get more "yes" answers than others? And so on.

I've heard answers that make a lot of sense, but they're only partial answers; there's a lot that God hasn't yet revealed. In the meantime, I think it's very important for us to remember that God really is all-powerful. That doesn't mean he'll do what we want when we want the way we want it, but we need to remember that he can.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

How do you know?

After I met Jesus and asked him to be my Lord and Savior, a friend started meeting with me and teaching me about the faith. One day, we read this passage together. Here Jesus is telling some people about the kingdom of heaven, and he has some bad news for them:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perfom many miracles?’

“Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
Matthew 7.21-23
My friend asked me how I knew I wouldn't end up like these poor guys.

Well, I don't cast out demons or perform miracles, but somehow I don't think that's the point. When I first read the passage, I thought the evildoers sounded surprised, but as I look at it now, I don't think they necessarily are.

One could imagine an officer in the British armed forces for example, issuing orders to friend and foe "in the name of Her Majesty, Queen _________ of England," and getting pretty good results. But the officer is a traitor; he's found out and brought before the Queen herself for sentencing. "I never knew you," she says, and orders the evildoer sent away.

It seems to me that in his reply Jesus gives them two key words: "knew" and "evildoer." How can I be sure of my fate? Well, does Jesus know me? Do I talk to him regularly, thank him for his blessings, ask him to help me follow him?

And am I an evildoer? I don't think that he means "ever done anything bad," but rather "persists in doing wrong." Put differently, do I want to stay in the dark to keep doing wrong, or do I want to know and do the truth?

written 1/9, posted 1/11

Monday, January 08, 2007

Who are these guys, anyway?

When the people of Israel left Egypt for the Promised Land, they encountered many hostile peoples. Some of them were distant relatives: the Edomites, the Moabites, the Ammonites. Today's reading includes the story of the Ammonites and Moabites -- who they were and where they came from. It also offers a warning.

Abram's nephew Lot had taken the path of greed and went to live near Sodom (Genesis 13.12). Some time later, he got a house in Sodom itself (Genesis 19.2-3), and when the visitors (actually destroying angels) came to Sodom, Lot took them to that house. I do not know what went through Lot's mind during the bizarre discussion that followed with the men of the city.

But it is clear what happens next: the angels destroy the city, and Lot and his two daughters (but not his wife) barely survive. They live in a cave for some time, perhaps longer than they should, and Lot's daughters seduce him, each in turn.
So both of Lot's daughters became pregnant by their father. The older daughter had a son, and she named him Moab; he is the father of the Moabites of today. The younger daughter also had a son, and she named him Ben-Ammi; he is the father of the Ammonites of today.
Genesis 19.36-38
As I understand it, the book of Genesis was written by Moses around the time of the Israelites' exodus from Egypt. So early readers of Genesis would have a pretty clear idea of who "the Moabites of today" (or the Ammonites) were: powerful enemies of Israel.

This passage seems to me a stern warning: "Be careful!" it says.

Lot didn't start off saying, "I'm going to take the path of greed and corruption, move into a wicked town, escape just as it's destroyed by God, have sex with my own daughters, and sire two tribes that will create major trouble for my cousin's descendants." He just took a step based on greed, taking the good land for himself. Then he took another step to seek comfort, moving into the wicked city of Sodom. I don't know the other steps, but by the time of Sodom's destruction it seems to me that he had gone just about completely off the rails.

Is there anything wrong with living in a nice place, or having a nice house? I hope not! But living in a wicked place, forgetting God and living without reference to him -- that's a problem.

May we be watchful (but not worried), and may the Lord help us to influence the world for good, rather than being influenced by the world for evil.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Slow start, good finish?

So far, most of the actors in the Biblical story have been men, and for the most part they have not done a very good job. When God confronted Adam about the forbidden fruit, he took it like a man; he blamed his wife. To save his own skin, Abram (soon to be renamed "Abraham") said Sarai was his sister, and let Pharoah take her as his wife. Abram's nephew Lot took the path of greed and got himself kidnaped. In today's reading, two women get their turn.
Now Sarai, Abram's wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian maidservant named Hagar; so she said to Abram, "The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my maidservant; perhaps I can build a family through her." Abram agreed to what Sarai said.
Genesis 16.1-2
Though bizarre to modern eyes, Sarai's action was not all that unusual for the time and place. What happened next? Sarai's plan backfired completely:
So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian maidservant Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived. When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress.
Genesis 16.3-4
Sarai then blamed Abram (for following her advice!), he disclaimed all responsibility, and she mistreated Hagar. Hagar fled, with no idea of where she was going.

On first reading, this looks like a story with no heroes. Sarai gives bad advice to her husband, then blames him for taking it. Abram acts like a wimp. Hagar develops a bad attitude then acts impulsively, fleeing into the desert with no plan or provisions. What's the deal?

Here's what I think. I think the point is to understand clearly that God does not choose the honorable, the strong, the courageous, the gifted, the rational. He chooses people like you and me and pours his blessings upon them. Then they grow up in the faith, and when they finish well, as Hebrews says, he is proud to be called their God.

So I guess God is the hero in this story; more than that, he wants to make us heroes too, if we let him. Sounds like a good plan.

posted 1/8

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Greed and its fruit

Abram and his nephew Lot both had livestock. Lots of livestock. Way too much livestock. It was time to go their separate ways. Abram, as the elder, had the right to say, "Take your flocks and herds over there; I'll go (or stay) over here. But instead he gave Lot his choice.
Let's part company. If you go to the left, I'll go to the right; if you go to the right, I'll go to the left. Lot looked up and saw that the whole plain of the Jordan was well watered.... So Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan and set out toward the east.
from Genesis 13.9-11
Bible teachers have noted that Abram was remarkably generous in offering Lot this choice. Here's something I wonder about. Why did Lot take for himself the "whole plain of the Jordan"? Could he not have said "the left bank of the Jordan" for example?

So what happened to Lot? Well, the next thing we read about is war -- and with it, kidnapping:
The 4 kings seized all the goods of Sodom and Gomorrah and all their food; then they went away. They also carried off Abram's nephew Lot and his possessions, since he was living in Sodom.
Genesis 14.11-12
Abram rescues Lot, who unfortunately returns to Sodom. You may know what happened later, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. The point here is that Lot took the best land (or so it seems) for himself, and ended up getting kidnapped. This is not to say that greed always brings disaster, but it did this time.

How could Abram have been so generous? Here's what I think. Earlier, the Lord had appeared to Abram and gave him a bunch of promises: he'd be a blessing to the nations, his offspring would inherit the land, this sort of thing. Abram had confidence based on faith in the Lord's promise, so minor details like pastureland and water were not a big deal to him. I also think Abram knew about the great blessings that the Lord had already bestowed upon him.

I don't know what that does for you, but it makes me wary of greed, and it makes me want to be like Abram. May the Lord help us so!

written 1/6, posted 1/7

Friday, January 05, 2007

You lucky bums...

That's one preacher's paraphrase of "Blessed are those," a phrase that appears several times in today's New Testament reading. When I see "blessed are..." I'm not sure exactly what to think, but the paraphrase "you lucky bums" connects to me; it says that true happiness, the gift of God's fellowship, the kingdom of heaven (and so on) are all coming my way -- though I don't deserve any of them.

Anyway, the passage begins by saying that Jesus "sat down," which any reader of the time would understand to mean that he was about to say something important. Here's how he began:
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness,
for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they shall be called the children of God.
Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’s sake
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 5.3-10
There are two things I want to mention about this passage. First, the idea of "poor in spirit" -- what does that mean? Here's something I heard that makes sense to me; maybe it'll be helpful for you.

Imagine that you're a hot tennis player. You've won Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, and so on. You'd be "rich in tennis." But if you play tennis like I do -- if you can barely hit the ball, let alone hit it over the net -- then you'd be poor in tennis. Someone who's poor in tennis knows that he's in big trouble without a coach or helper; someone who's rich in tennis thinks he's OK on his own -- in the tennis world, anyway.

Similarly, when I'm poor in spirit, I realize that I'm in deep trouble without Jesus. I'm self-centered, intolerant, impatient, and apathetic; without the transforming power of God I'd be in real trouble, and everybody who has to live or work with me would be miserable, embarrassed, or both.

Someone who's rich in spirit, on the other hand, might believe himself to be OK as he is, that he doesn't need spiritual direction, doesn't need help, or is spiritually superior than others. He may believe that he's beyond certain kinds of sins, or that God loves him more than others. Not the kind of guy I'd like to meet.

The other thing I wanted to mention about this passage is that I used to think of it as a set of eight separate sentences. If you're meek, for example, you might inherit the earth (whatever that means); if you're merciful, you'll be shown mercy -- and so on. But I learned a few years ago that the structure of the passage carries a message: "for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" is present in both the first and the last verses; it functions as a pair of bookends.

The whole passage, in other words, is all about for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, and gives us a picture of the kingdom of heaven, and the characteristics of its citizens. So those in the kingdom of heaven are poor in spirit, they mourn (because the world is not as it's supposed to be), they're meek because they know it's not all about them (rather, it's all about the King), they hunger and thirst for righteousness, and so on.

And that I can (and should) consider myself lucky (OK, "blessed") when by God's help any of these descriptions fit me. That's something to remember, I guess, when I feel discouraged about my own spiritual growth, when I'm vexed about the condition of this sorry, dark world, and so on. Then I'm lucky.

It feels backwards, but this truth is the Real Thing. You lucky bums!

Thursday, January 04, 2007

He said to them, "Follow me"

At least 40 years ago, when I was a kid in Sunday School, they taught us a simple chorus based on Matthew 4.19:
I will make you fishers of men,
Fishers of men,
Fishers of men,
I will make you fishers of men
If you follow me....
The next encounter with this verse (that I remember) was as a young Christian, where I was encouraged to memorize it:
And he said to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men"
Matthew 4.19
I think the point we were supposed to get was Jesus's invitation to recruit men and women for the Kingdom of God. Oh, and verse 20 says something like: Immediately they left their nets and followed him. And I think the point we were supposed to get from that was immediate obedience. Exactly how we were supposed to apply that wasn't entirely clear -- they did not encourage me to quit my job for a life of... what? So what did Simon and Andrew hear when Jesus said, "Follow me"? Why did they respond like that?

Recently I read something that answers those questions. In those days, I read, young men aspired to follow a rabbi, to be his students. Any given rabbi would not have a whole lot of disciples, or followers, because they would do everything with him. Where he walked, they would walk. When he ate, they would eat, and so on. So there were a lot of disappointed young men, and later, a lot of older men resigned to their fate as second- or third-class citizens. They had a variety of other jobs, merchants or whatever. At the bottom of the heap were tradesmen. Carpenters, stone-masons. Fishermen.

So Jesus's invitation would be like... like a casting director walking up to an aspiring actor (currently a Hollywood waiter) and saying, "Come with me, because I have a major role for you." This guy is just serving time while waiting for his big break -- or a small one.

But one difference between the Hollywood waiter and the Galilean fishermen is that the waiter might still have been hoping for that big break, whereas Simon and Andrew had likely given up hope of a life beyond the trades long ago.

And how about for you and me? If your job, like mine, is outside the field of "religious services" -- you're not paid to be a Christian, in other words -- then here's how I see this passage's relevance to us. At any moment of any day, we could be doing our jobs, whether it's crunching numbers, crushing rocks, building stuff, hauling stuff or whatever -- at any moment, somebody could come by for something, and we might get an invitation from the Holy Spirit to pray for that person, or to minister to them in some way. To elevate our lives, in other words, from the mundane to the eternal.

And when he calls, when he invites, may we respond with joy, as Simon and Andrew did so many years ago.

written 1/4; posted 1/5

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Lord was grieved...

We Christians sometimes get overly excited about some issue or another in the world or in the church, and not excited enough about things that really grieve the Lord. Today's Old Testament reading gives us some insight into one thing that really bothers him -- to the extent that he wanted to destroy all life on earth.
The Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain.... God said to Noah, "I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them."
Genesis 6.6,13
What followed, of course, was the flood. Surprised? You may have seen some pamphlets that mentioned other things that prompted the flood: shady financial dealings or kinky sex for example. But none of those were mentioned in this passage leading up to the flood. Wickedness in general, yes; as far as particulars, the only one I see here is violence.

Not that he doesn't care about gossip, deviant sexual behavior, lying, cheating, stealing, disobedience -- far from it! -- but that as far as issues that grieved God enough that he wanted to wipe mankind... from the face of the earth (Genesis 6.7), those weren't the killers.

So why do we get excited about those others more than about violence? I think part of it, for us Americans anyway, is that we live in the United States. The national culture (with an astonishingly high homicide rate among industrialized countries) is a violent one.

Which, in light of this passage, makes me worried want to pray.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Who's Responsible?

Years, decades ago, I formed a picture in my mind of Eve's encounter with the serpent in the garden. The serpent talked to her about the forbidden fruit, she ate some, and took it over to Adam, who may or may not have known what kind of fruit this was.

This picture was completely wrong, though, as a re-reading of the text proves:
When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.
Genesis 3.6 (emphasis added)
I first read about this in Crabb's book The Silence of Adam. He raises this question: Why didn't Adam say anything? Adam had no plausible deniability about this fruit; he knew what it was.

I guess that's why he was held responsible. Reading a little further down, when God passes judgment on the serpent, the woman, and the man, he says
to the serpent, "Because you have done this,
cursed are you above all the livestock... (Genesis 3.14)
To the woman he said,
I will greatly increase your pains... (Genesis 3.16)
To Adam he said, "Because you listened... and ate
...Cursed is the ground because of you... (Genesis 3.17)
Did you notice anything missing from God's comments to Eve? Somehow, the word "Because" seems to be missing.

What exactly are we to make of this? To borrow a line from Fiddler on the Roof, "I'll tell you: I don't know."

But it means something; it doesn't mean nothing. Here's my current theory: it's related to those New Testament passages that compare the husband's role with his wife to Christ's role with his church. It's not a 1-for-1 match of course; Christ didn't sin, whereas every other man (hence every husband) does. He somehow ended up paying the penalty for all of our sins.

What this means to me, concretely, today, this year... I'm not sure. If you figure it out, I hope you let me know.

actually posted 1/3

Monday, January 01, 2007

Co-Rulers with God?

Some months ago, my wife brought home a copy of "Adventures in Missing the Point" by Campolo and McLaren. The authors talk about how Christians typically study the Bible, how we might look at repeated phrases, try to discern meanings of words based on how they're used elsewhere, and so on. One thing we typically don't do is compare the Bible with other literature of its period. This has gotten many of us into trouble when reading the creation story in Genesis 1, which is part of today's Old Testament reading.

We took a class on Genesis a few years ago, where we did compare the creation story with other literature of the period. It was very enlightening. One of the things that we learned is that Genesis 1 is poetry. Another thing is that other creation stories of the period involved war among the gods, and mankind as slaves. Here's a little picture we looked at, illustrating the first point:

The earth was formless...and empty...
1st day: "Let there be light" ... 4th day: sun, moon, stars
2nd day: sky; waters below sky 5th day: birds, fish
3rd day: dry land 6th day: land animals and man
Apparently, the form of the Hebrew text would tell an intelligent reader of the period that this was poetry, as would the layout of the poem: the earth is formless and empty, and the story tells us that God creates forms (to address the formlessness) in the first three "days". In the last three "days" he fills the forms (to address the emptiness). Thus light, then sun/moon/stars; sky and waters, then birds/fish; dry land, then land animals.

The other major creation story of the day described a conflict among many gods in the heavens. Some gods (the losers) were forced to do all the work for the winners, and they complained because there was too much work. So one of the loser gods was killed, and his blood was mixed with mud to form a race of slaves (i.e., humankind). What a lovely, ennobling creation myth!

The story in Genesis 1 contradicts and refutes this dominant myth at just about every point. First, God is one, not many. Second, he speaks the universe, including man, into being; there is not war and death and blood. Third, considering the dominant creation myth of the day, try to imagine what this must have sounded like to someone from the ancient near East:

Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground."
Genesis 1.26
Mankind created in God's image? And created to rule with him? Not to be a slave?

This, that man was created by God to rule with him, not to be a slave -- this is the revolutionary, radical truth that Genesis 1 was written to communicate. Some people think Genesis 1 was written to communicate that God, not unguided chance, is behind the Origin of Species, to coin a phrase. I used to think that way myself. But the form of the text, and the comparison with other literature of the period, both say no. It's that one God spoke the world into being and created man to rule with him -- and specifically that man was not created as a race of slaves, was not the result of a war among rival factions of gods -- that's what Genesis 1 is about.

And what that means for you and me today is this: We were created by God to rule over the earth -- to take care of it and order it. We are not slaves, but regents of the master of the universe.

Now there's a thought to take into the new year: co-rulers with God!

posted 1/3