Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Deny yourself... of work!

We got up early this morning and went for a swim at the 'Y'. As I drove, the lovely Carol read to me from the Bible. She read something from the Psalms, and Proverbs 10.19, and then something from Leviticus 23, about the Day of Atonement, the tenth day of the seventh month. Regarding that day, it says three times that the Israelites are to deny themselves. Of what? Of work!
Do no work on that day, because it is the Day of Atonement, when atonement is made for you before the Lord your God. Anyone who does not deny himself on that day must be cut off from his people.
Leviticus 23.28-29
Were they supposed to deny themselves of anything else? Maybe, but that's the only thing mentioned three times along with the injunction to deny themselves.

In other words, "deny yourself" doesn't always mean to abstain from sex, say, or food. And what's the opposite of self-denial? Self-indulgence -- in other words, work is sometimes an indulgence. It was back then, and it still is today. We even have a word, "workaholic," to describe those who indulge too much in this.

Why is it an indulgence? For me, when I'm doing something, I can feel productive and like I'm justifying my existence. I feel good about myself. And where is God in all that?

Which I guess is why it's good to stop. Which I will right here.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Power; Demons

Many years ago, probably before I came to know Jesus, I read somewhere that some people thought the end of the world was coming in the first century. It was based on Mark 9.1:
And he said to them, "I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power."
or maybe its equivalent in another of the gospels. Quite a while later, I read something that made more sense -- see what the evangelist tells us immediately afterwards. In this case, Mark 9.2:
After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them.
Jesus's clothes became dazzling white, and Moses and Elijah appeared, and a voice from heaven instructed Peter, James and John to listen to Jesus, "my son, whom I love." Which to me sounds like some sort of investiture of power, and is probably what he meant by "the kingdom of God coming with power."

They come down from the mountain, and find a boy possessed by an evil spirit. The other disciples couldn't cast the demon out, which makes me wonder why. Was it a lack of faith? I don't think so. Take a look here:
After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, "Why couldn't we drive it out?"

He replied, "This kind can come out only by prayer."
Mark 9.28-29
They thought they should have been able to drive it out; that's why they were surprised. Which reminds me of something I heard once at a conference: the first rule of dealing with demons: Never, ever, for any reason, under any circumstance, ever be afraid of a demon. A demon's job description is to get beat up by Christians. An interesting thought, and it makes sense in light of 1 John 4.4, but I don't think I would have thought of it on my own.

Anyway, I find Jesus's reply astonishing -- that this kind of demon requires prayer to be driven out -- in other words, the others didn't require it! Apparently the disciples drove out those other demons just by commanding them. That's a different world.

The last thing I want to mention about this passage is the exemplary attitude of the boy's father: Immediately the boy's father exclaimed, "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!" (Mark 9.24) And Jesus did help him. In this case, he helped by healing the boy immediately, but that's not what he always does.

Which reminds me of Paul, taking comfort in the assurance that whether we live or die, we can be with him (with Jesus). Or Daniel's three friends, who knew God could save them if he so chose -- "But if not," they were willing to take whatever came next.

May I be like that too!

Monday, February 26, 2007

What good is it?

Today's New Testament reading includes this famous quotation:
What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?
Mark 8.36
I'm going to guess that many people have heard the quote without knowing what it was talking about. In fact, I didn't remember until I read it this morning that Jesus is here talking about sacrifices attending the Christian life.

This immediately follows the "Who do you say that I am?" passage (8.29) and his statements that he himself would suffer and die and rise again. Peter begins to rebuke him, and Jesus corrects him.
Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.
Mark 8.34-35
Many commentators have noted that to take up one's cross means "prepare to die," and that in turn brings to mind the adage, "If you're willing to die for your wife, why aren't you willing to do the dishes for her?" If I'm willing to die for Jesus, then, am I willing to tell my colleagues about him? Do my colleagues know, for example, that I write these essays?

Well, I don't know. But as soon as I get to the office this morning, I'll to update my "work" home page to include a link to this blog.

OK, so it's immediately after this that Jesus asks the rhetorical question above, "What good is it?" If I want to save my life, if I want to gain the world, Jesus seems to be saying, I may forfeit my soul, and what good would that do me? What good indeed?

And why is it that way? It doesn't seem to be a case of "If you do this, then I'll punish you by doing that" but it sounds more like a logical consequence. It's like if what we'll do all day and night in heaven is worship God, then if I don't like worshiping God, I wouldn't like heaven. H'm... Jesus continues:
Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father's glory with the holy angels."
Mark 8.37-38
So maybe if I'd be ashamed of Jesus and his words, then a place where Jesus and his words are the center of attention -- that place wouldn't be for me?

Then help me, Lord, to treasure your words and to long for your approval and blessing, more than for anything and everything in this whole world.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Alternate universe

Some parts of Leviticus make me wonder what planet some of these people come from. Today's reading, which has a bunch of sexual prohibitions in it -- and there's a surprise in the middle of it too -- is one such part.
The Lord said to Moses, "Speak to the Israelites and say to them: 'I am the Lord your God. You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices. You must obey my laws and be careful to follow my decrees. I am the Lord your God. ...

" 'Do not take your wife's sister as a rival wife and have sexual relations with her while your wife is living.

" 'Do not approach a woman to have sexual relations during the uncleanness of her monthly period.

" 'Do not have sexual relations with your neighbor's wife and defile yourself with her.

" 'Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molech, for you must not profane the name of your God. I am the Lord.

" 'Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.

" 'Do not have sexual relations with an animal and defile yourself with it....
Leviticus 18.1-4, 18-23
There is a whole lot of other stuff in the parts I deleted -- like don't have sex with both a woman and her daughter, don't have sex with your sister or your mother, this sort of thing. What strikes me is that if I have this right, these were common practices in either Egypt or Canaan or both.

And right in the middle of all this is the prohibition against killing your children in a religious ceremony (a practice that nonetheless continued hundreds of years later). And the prohibition against male-on-male sex. And sex with animals.

The prohibitions are unambiguous, but neither does the Lord obsess about these things.

And now the question is: are these commandments like the ones about shrimp and bacon, or are they like the ones about murder and adultery? Did they apply only to the Jews, or are these commands for everyone? Or is the right answer that
verse 18 (wife's sister as rival)
applies universally
verse 19 (sex during a woman's monthly period)
depends on local habits
verse 20 (neighbor's wife)
applies universally
verse 21 (killing your children)
applies universally
verse 22 (male-male sex)
applies only to Jews
verse 23 (sex with animals)
applies universally
? Well, that doesn't look very likely to me. It seems more likely that this list probably applies universally -- that is, these proscribed activities are prohibited for anyone wanting to please God at all times -- rather than saying most of them are in that category except this one and that one.

Which of these should a pluralistic society try to legislate? Ah, that's a harder question. The answer in the US has varied over time. I'll go out on a limb and say that the state has a right and a duty to enforce the one about "Don't kill your children in a religious ritual," religious freedom be damned.

But as far as pleasing God -- it sure looks to me like this is a universal list. Not that anyone will go to hell for any of these things (a murderer on a cross next to Jesus went to heaven, right?), but for any of us that want to walk in God's ways, and want to know whether these things are displeasing, the simple answer is that they are.

By the way, I'm not writing about these because they're the most important issue when it comes to pleasing God, but there seems to be a lot of confusion and dispute about these today. And it did strike me that "don't kill your children" is in the midst of these other prohibitions.

Sent to my nephews last month

Something that I sent to my teenage nephews last month (the oldest might be in his early 20s). I sometimes wish I had thought more about these things when I was their age. No idea whether it'll help but, well, I've put the bug in their ear anyway.

27 January 2007

Dear nephews,

It was a great blessing to see you guys last month. You're bright and energetic with a lot of potential. You've got your whole lives ahead of you (as they say), but it's not too early to think about what you're going to do with them.

Jenny has been thinking about this lately, as she considers her college options. To help her with this, I picked up a copy of What Color Is Your Parachute? by Richard Bolles. This book contains a lot of tips for finding a job, but more importantly it has some terrific exercises to help figure out what kind of work you're suited for.

I did (some of) the exercises a couple of times, once way back in the 1980s, and once in about 2001. The latter time, when I was in my 40s, I got a real surprise: I learned that I loved to communicate – something I hadn't really recognized before! It would be hard to overstate how much this book has helped me.

For that reason, and more, I want to offer to send you your own copy if you'd like to read it. (If both Anthony and Benjamin want one, I propose to send just one at first; if after looking at it you each want your own, I'll happily send another.)

Recent editions have something that I don't remember seeing before: a section on finding your mission in life. I'll summarize it briefly for you here, so you can get a taste of the guy's thinking. Basically, in Bolles's view, you have three missions in life:

First is to try to stand, hour by hour, in the conscious presence of God -- the one you get the rest of your mission from.

Second is to do what you can, moment by moment, day by day, etc., to make the world a better place, following the leading and guidance of God's Spirit in and around you.

Those first two missions are shared with everyone else. The third one, he says, is yours alone:

  • to exercise that talent which you particularly came to Earth to use -- i.e., your greatest gift, which you most delight to use
  • in the place(s) or setting(s) which God has caused to appeal to you the most
  • for the purposes which God wants most to accomplish in the world

That's it: you have a mission from God, three of them actually. The third one especially takes thought, introspection; it takes some real work. And it's your responsibility. Your parents and friends can help, but ultimately it's up to you.

True confession: at your age I didn't think much about this. Actually I just sort of did what others expected of me for my first, oh, 25 years or so. You know - I went to the next level of school; when I graduated from college I got a job and did what they told me. (At one point, when I was about 22, I decided to follow Jesus. I'd be delighted to tell you all about that.) But otherwise, I tended to choose the path of least resistance.

So what do you think? Does this "mission" stuff seem reasonable to start thinking about? A lot of how you go about finding your mission has to do with stories. Your stories. Bolles gives a lot of help in figuring out how to find, write, and learn from them.

Are you ready to start? Let me know and I'll send you a copy!

your uncle,


Saturday, February 24, 2007

"Rotarian" Jesus, dietary laws, and OCD

Some years ago, when I was living with Jon and Beth (a Navigator staff couple), Jon mentioned the phrase "Rotarian Jesus" as an impression some people have of our Lord Jesus Christ. As I understood it, this was the idea of Jesus as being a pleasant, urbane fellow, always polished and tactful. Smooth, but not in the sense of being "slick." Today's New Testament reading corrects this misapprehension.

The first incident we're told about is when the Pharisees and teachers of the law notice that Jesus's disciples ate without first washing their hands in a manner prescribed by some tradition or another.
So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, "Why don't your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with 'unclean' hands?"

He replied, "Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:
These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
their teachings are but rules taught by men.
Mark 7.5-7
Not the kind of dialogue you'd expect at a Rotary Club meeting. Jesus explains how these Pharisees and teachers of the law contradict God's commands by elevating human tradition above the Bible. Is this the same Jesus who said, "Blessed are the meek"? Yes, it is, but both because he's fully human and hence may get exasperated occasionally (as he does with the disciples a few paragraphs later) and also because he's fully God and therefore holy -- his holiness implies intolerance of evil.

Jesus then calls the crowd back and explains further:
"Nothing outside a man can make him 'unclean' by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him 'unclean.' "

After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable.

"Are you so dull?" he asked. "Don't you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him 'unclean'? For it doesn't go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body." (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods "clean.") He went on: "What comes out of a man is what makes him 'unclean.' For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.
Mark 7.15-22
There it is -- Jesus declares all foods "clean." But look at what's unclean. This isn't the seven deadly sins; here is a list of thirteen! As I look at this today, I notice something I haven't seen before. Jesus says that food doesn't make a man unclean -- that is food does not cause or create uncleanness. But then he says that the things that come out of a man make him unclean.

Does this mean that it's the evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft and so on that create uncleanness? I would think that they reveal uncleanness, or that their presence could be construed as some sort of demonstration or proof of uncleanness (thus "make him unclean") but do they actually cause uncleanness?

OK, after a little research, I think the answer is "yes," perhaps in a sort of ceremonial sense. The King James uses the word "defile" -- evil thoughts, etc., defile a person, whereas food does not defile anyone. The word can be translated "desecrate" or "make impure." Here is how I make sense out of this. Consider the issue of sexual immorality. Many (perhaps most) people have experienced sexual desire for someone other than their spouse, for example. Some have entertained such desires without acting on them. Entertaining those desires, meditating on them, cherishing them, is a bad idea, and may fall into the category of "evil thoughts."

But acting on those desires would undoubtedly make things worse. I guess the defilement was already there, in a manner of speaking. But actually carrying it out... If a man looks at a woman to lust after her, he has committed adultery with her already in his heart. which is bad enough. Doing it in the flesh does add to the defilement.

Come to think of it, there's a principle of battling OCD that says you can fight it cognitively and behaviorally; when you sense an impulse, say, to wash your hands when you've already done so, you can relabel it as an erroneous signal (that's the cognitive part) and refuse to carry it out -- that is, refuse to wash 'em (that's the behavioral part). I'm oversimplifying this but the general idea is that the more you refuse to carry out these impulses, the less often or less intensely they will come.

What we say and do will impact our holiness (or lack thereof). But not what we eat.

posted 2/25

Friday, February 23, 2007

But what if he doesn't?

In today's reading from the Psalms, David testifies to how God rescued him:
I waited patiently for the Lord;
he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand.
Psalm 40.1-2
I have to confess that when I read these things, I sometimes wonder, "But what about those who weren't rescued?"

For some of us, the happy talk we hear so much of in the Christian community actually matches experience much of the time. But that's not true for everyone. And even for those who can relate to this, it doesn't match our experience in all areas, all of the time.

It is true that some of us hope for things that the Lord has not promised; sometimes we want things that are not good for us. But I think of a man who has suffered one chronic ailment after another, physical and mental disorders, depression and exhaustion, sickness and barely tolerable recovery.

Life doesn't seem to fit into neat little boxes. It's not mathematics.

But maybe that's not life's fault. Garrison Keillor commented once, tongue in cheek, that "the theories were correct; it was the phenomena that were wrong." Ha!

So the neat little boxes simply don't describe life, and neither does mathematics. Math is just math, after all, and much as I enjoy math, it's asking too much of it to try to make it explain life.

No, life is a lot messier and more complex than that, and defies complete comprehension this side of the grave.

Meanwhile, most of us have blessings to reflect on and praise the Lord for, which is always a good thing to do.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

A major brat!

For some reason, the Bible seems to be full of goofy families. I'm not sure whether it's because our concept of family is so different today, or because the Biblical authors included details only when they were unusual. Perhaps it's a bit of both.

So Herod is king of this section of the Roman empire, and he has a brother. Herod has married his brother's ex-wife, and John the Baptist objected to that arrangement. This got him arrested. Herod's wife wants to kill John, but Herod won't do it.

What is it with these people? Why do they care so much what John thinks? If it's just John's opinion, why can't they ignore it? But if it's God's opinion, rather than John's that they're concerned about, then it's even dumber to imprison or kill John.

And in any case, why can't they talk about this and figure it out, rather than scheming to ... well, I'm getting ahead of myself. Herod has a birthday party, and invites a bunch of officials and military commanders and such.
When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests. The king said to the girl, "Ask me for anything you want, and I'll give it to you." And he promised her with an oath, "Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom."

She went out and said to her mother, "What shall I ask for?"

"The head of John the Baptist," she answered.

At once the girl hurried in to the king with the request: "I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter."
Mark 6.22-25
The king straightened her out. "Listen kid," he said in a confidential tone. "You blew your line. Your line is supposed to be 'Oh no, my Lord the King; the light of your countenance is more than I have wished for my whole life' or something like that. Now try it again and don't blow it this time, OK?"

No, he didn't say that. Instead, he took it like an exasperated 20th-century parent. He replied to his wife's daughter, "You bloodthirsty brat! Your mother put you up to this, didn't she? Go to your room; no dessert for you tonight!"

No, he didn't do that, either. What actually happened was this: He didn't want to be embarrassed in front of his dinner guests, and ordered John's beheading.

What? He didn't want to be embarrassed? In front of who? His boss? No; he was the boss! He must have been a really insecure guy.

Which reminds me of the predicament of a modern-day wage slave, working at a job he doesn't like so he can buy things he doesn't need to impress people he doesn't even like!

And Herod's story also shows that being at the top won't necessarily bring happiness or security.

So what am I looking for today? And are the choices I make today -- not just the big ones but the little ones, too, like am I going to reach out to someone or just take the easy path -- will those choices bring me closer to God, or take me one step closer to ending up like Herod?

How does one find God? An open letter to a friend of my daughter

There are lots of resources out there that can help answer your question; this is my rather scattered addition, and it's all about the God of the Bible. Why not some other religious tradition? I address that in another posting.

You are asking a great and important question. Simply by asking, you've taken a step toward God that many have not. The question is both simple and complex. Here are a few thoughts.

God, our creator, wants to be found and known by us. Good thing, too, because as created beings we're as powerless to find God as Frodo was to find Tolkien. Unlike Tolkien, God entered the human story in the form of Jesus of Nazareth....

One method of finding God is to read what Jesus said, act like it's a command from God, and try to obey. Start somewhere in Matthew 5 for example; read a little, and put it into practice. Ask God for help, as though you believed he were actually there. Ask him to reveal himself to you. In doing that you'll be exercising faith, which is an important component of both finding and pleasing God.

If God can in fact be found, as I believe he can, there is nothing more important in life than to find him; the search is worth our full attention and highest priority.

How does one approach God? Many of us approach God (and the Bible too) as though we were historians and God were merely a historical phenomenon or a chemical reaction. That's one approach, which works with limited success. We can approach him as a little child approaches Santa Claus, as a cancer patient approaches an oncologist, as a woman approaches a man she's considering as a possible husband. Or how about this? as a criminal approaches a judge -- a judge with a reputation for justice and mercy both.

Or... as a king. When I was your age (sorry, can't help it) I thought I could approach God as I approached a mathematical conjecture. Could it be proven? Then it would be (or become) a theorem. That didn't work very well. One does not find a girlfriend in that manner, either.

A few random Bible quotes on this topic:
  • Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his thoughts and the unrighteous man his ways, and let him return to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. (Isaiah 55)
  • You will seek me and find me when you seek me with your whole heart. (Jeremiah 29)
  • There is none who seeks for God. (Romans 3) [Therefore,] "No one can come to me unless the Father draws him." (John 6)
  • Without faith it is impossible to please him, for he who comes to God must believe that he is, and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him (Hebrews 11)

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Bacon and Shrimp, and Power over unclean things

Today's Old Testament reading includes some of the dietary laws:
“‘[T]he pig, though it has a split hoof completely divided, does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you. You must not eat their meat or touch their carcasses; they are unclean for you.

“‘Of all the creatures living in the water of the seas and the streams, you may eat any that have fins and scales. But all creatures in the seas or streams that do not have fins and scales--whether among all the swarming things or among all the other living creatures in the water--you are to detest. And since you are to detest them, you must not eat their meat and you must detest their carcasses. Anything living in the water that does not have fins and scales is to be detestable to you.
Leviticus 11.7-12
Reading that, I'm glad that we are no longer subject to those dietary laws: crab, lobster, bacon, shrimp, pork ribs, scallops, pigs' feet, oysters, catfish would all be off limits! But though the list of forbidden foods is rather broad, one might be better off avoiding some of those items. Shrimp and other filter animals tend to accumulate bad stuff from the water, and pork is not on your cardiologist's list of healthy foods. That was no doubt one reason God forbade those animals, but probably not the only reason. In any case, God declared these items "unclean" from the time of Moses.

Today's New Testament reading shows Jesus, not eating pork, but coming into contact with an "unclean" person -- and ignoring her uncleanness. He's just returned from the land of the Gerasenes and a large crowd gathers.
Then one of the synagogue rulers, named Jairus, came there. Seeing Jesus, he fell at his feet and pleaded earnestly with him, "My little daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live." So Jesus went with him. A large crowd followed and pressed around him.

And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, "If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed."

Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.
Mark 5.22-29
This is different from what we've seen before with Jesus. In earlier encounters, Jesus commands something and it happens; here, someone just touches him.

And not just anyone -- it's a woman subject to bleeding for twelve years -- a long time. Because of her condition, she has been locked out of participation in the religious community; she wasn't allowed into the temple, couldn't participate in the feasts and celebrations. She may have had to eat alone. If she was married, she would not have had intimate contact with her husband for those twelve years because of her condition.

Now she just touches Jesus's cloak, and she's healed. This is more than authority; it's power that's almost magical. He can tell something's happened:
At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, "Who touched my clothes?"

"You see the people crowding against you," his disciples answered, "and yet you can ask, 'Who touched me?' "

But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. He said to her, "Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering."
Mark 5.30-34
She tells her story, and notice, Jesus doesn't say, "Ewww, unclean!" He responds with compassion.

Jesus doesn't nullify the dietary laws - that's not until later. But he doesn't care about being made "unclean" by touching a bleeding woman.

If you've read the story before, you know what comes next. He's still talking with this woman, and Jairus gets the news that his daughter has already died. Jesus goes to Jairus's house anyway, throws out the mourners,
and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, "Talitha koum!" (which means, "Little girl, I say to you, get up!"). Immediately the girl stood up and walked around (she was twelve years old).
from Mark 5.40-42
Jesus doesn't seem afraid to touch a dead person, either. It's as if he ordered a shrimp appetizer and a pork-rib dinner!

And so he is with you and me. Regardless of what others might think about us, regardless of the sins we've committed in the past, the Lord welcomes all who seek him.

Which is both something to take comfort in, and an attitude to emulate.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Authority and its limitations

Today's New Testament reading shows us more about the authority of Jesus: it shows a greater extent of his authority than we've seen before, and it also shows a limitation on his authority. Limitations?? Read on.

Earlier readings showed Jesus teaching with authority, exercising his authority over diseases and evil spirits, claiming authority over his agenda, over the definition of family, over proper interpretation of the Sabbath and other laws. In today's reading, he takes a boat trip with his disciples.
A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, "Teacher, don't you care if we perish?"

He got up, rebuked the wind and the waves, "Quiet! Be still!" Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.
Mark 4.37-39
He's got authority over the weather!

They go to the land of the Gerasenes, and there was a man subject to demons. Jesus commanded them (the demons said, “we are many” — Mark 5.9) to leave, and they had no choice but to obey. So Jesus has authority and can command "many" demons (a legion -- what is that, 5,000 or so? You know the rest of the story -- The demons begged Jesus, "Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them" (Mark 5.12) and they drowned about 2,000 pigs. And the man is set free from the evil spirits.

So what's this about limitations? Well, Jesus's authority extends over the whole earth, but look what happens when the townspeople learn about this man's liberation:
When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. Those who had seen it told the people what had happened to the demon-possessed man -- and told about the pigs as well. Then the people began to plead with Jesus to leave their region.
Mark 5.15-17
OK, so there was nothing wrong with the authority Jesus had; the limitation was self-imposed. What I take away from this is that the good news is not always welcome. A few months ago, our pastor pointed out that although even Jesus didn't have a hearing with these folks, the liberated man did:
As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. Jesus did not let him, but said, "Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you." So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.
Mark 5.18-20
A good point! In your office or neighborhood (or in mine), you and I may have already gained a hearing, whereas a pastor, a preacher, a "professional" evangelist might not be welcomed. So it might be that ordinary people like you and me may have key roles in expanding the Kingdom of God.

Which is exciting news, and, on balance, good news, though it feels intimidating and overwhelming at times, and I often feel that I fall short.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Getting to sleep when you've got a nagging cough

So I've tried a bunch of stuff and here's what works for me:
  1. A hot shower
  2. Nasal rinse! ¼ tsp salt in ½ cup water, then heat to body temp (microwave about 20 seconds). They tell you to boil the water first. It sounds gross, but pour a little into a cupped hand. With the other hand, keep one nostril shut, then bring the cupped hand up to the other nostril and "snuff" a little into the nasal passage, until you can taste a little salt, then blow (don't blow too hard!) it out through the nostril it came in through. Alternate nostrils. Repeat a few times or until the expelled stuff is free from icky-looking color.
  3. cough drops. sugarless. Don't get this lodged in your throat so that you choke and die!
  4. benzonatate tablets, if you have them. The brand name was something like "tessalon perle". If your spouse experiences the same symptoms, make sure that s/he doesn't eat all of yours so that you're out when you need 'em yourself. (How do I know this? Let's not go there, OK?) These have been very helpful in the past, but recently when I went looking for mine, they were all gone.
  5. magic cough syrup. It goes by the name of "tussionex"® but it's worked for me when all else has failed. It has the equivalent an eight-hour Chlor-Trimeton® tablet in addition to the codeine, so don't double up on those. Yeah, it makes me feel a little drowsy all day long, but maybe I needed the rest anyway
Time to send an invoice to the pharmaceutical companies for this great PR I'm giving them... if only!

Seriously though, it's worked pretty well for me. I almost gave up after #4, but then I recalled that I still had some of the magic cough syrup around from last time. It worked pretty well so I thought I'd tell you about it.

Family redefined

No, this isn't a piece about diversity of family structures at the turn of the century or anything like that. Rather, we're returning to the theme of Jesus's authority. We're told that he and his disciples entered a house and a huge crowd gathered as he taught.
Then Jesus’ mother and brothers ... sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.”

“Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked.

Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”
Mark 3.31-35
I cannot imagine what that must have sounded like to them, especially to his mother, but Jesus is claiming a lot of authority for himself.

Looking at the arc of Mark's gospel from chapter 1 (where we see authority over evil spirits and over diseases) through chapter 2 (authority to forgive sins, authority over religious rituals like fasting and the Sabbath) and now in chapter 3 where he defines family in light of the Kingdom of God, rather than in terms of biology.

So this is the thing: Jesus redefines not just family, but everything in light of the Kingdom of God. Why do I do what I do, and why do I do it in that particular way?

And specifically about family: how do I show myself a brother to those who do God's will? How am, or should I be a brother to them? To what extent, and in what ways, can I (or should I) think of them as my brother or sister or mother?

As I wrote that, something occurred to me: the next question I was about to write was going to be about money: borrowing or lending, giving or receiving... that's something connected in my mind to family relationships. Of course we give to the church, to relief and development efforts, for evangelism and discipleship and leadership development. But that's pretty much all through agencies and organizations. To whom have we written personal checks, I mean checks payable just to that person, to bail him or her out or help buy a house or whatever?

It occurs to me that defining family in terms of "who you'd loan money to" might be a little strange, and that maybe this is something I should think about -- in terms of expanding my vision of family to include "whoever does the will of God" I mean. And for me, the point of growth might be: from whom would I be willing to accept a personal loan or grant? Who would I be willing to ask, with all the complications that it would entail?

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Desires of your heart?

I have a sort of love-hate relationship with those Bible passages that seem to promise everything if you just do ______. Here's one such passage from today's reading in the Psalms:
Delight yourself in the Lord
and he will give you the desires of your heart
Commit your way to the Lord
trust also in him and he will do it
Psalm 37.4-5
Why do I both like and dislike this passage? Well, look at it -- give me the desires of my heart, huh? Sign me up! But if I have unfulfilled desires, this makes it sound like I'm not delighting enough in the Lord or something. And the exhortation to commit my way to the Lord and trust him doesn't help with this complaint.
Another issue I have with this passage is the phrase "give you... desires". Does this mean "grant your heart's desires"? Or is it more like "change your heart to desire only what the Lord wants for you"? I think the context favors the former, but unfulfilled desires seem problematic under either interpretation.
But if I calm down a bit, take a deep breath, and and read the rest of the psalm, I get a better picture of what goes on. In fact, just the next two verses are very helpful:
He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn
the justice of your cause like the noonday sun.
Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him;
do not fret when men succeed in their ways,
when they carry out their wicked schemes.
Psalm 37.6-7
So, what does "he will do it" mean in verse 5? That he'll bring out my righteousness and the justice of my cause -- assuming that my cause is just, which I think it would be if I delight in the Lord, and commit my way to him, and trust in him.

Then verse 7 tells me to wait patiently. It may take a while, in other words. It also says not to fret "when" (not "if") "men succeed" in wickedness. So sometimes they will succeed and I'm supposed to "wait patiently" -- very unnatural.

Ha -- if it were natural, that part wouldn't need to be there.

So what does this mean to me? For one thing, I should remember that fulfillment of the promises may take time. For another, it's important to be clear on what's being promised -- if I have selfish desires and God promises to make the justice of my cause manifest, then... well maybe I'm trying to cash a doctored check.

But ultimately, what it means is that as I delight and trust in him, that he's with me and for me. And that's good news.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Which book of the Bible says "shall be forgiven" more than any other?

I don't remember when I first looked this up, but it's the book of Leviticus. Ten times in Leviticus, "it shall be forgiven" appears -- more than any of the Bible's 65 other books. Ten times, because it talks about the different sacrifices.

Today's Old Testament reading includes the first eight of those places, starting in Leviticus 4.20-21:
In this way the priest will make atonement for them, and they will be forgiven. Then he shall take the bull outside the camp and burn it....
Now here is an interesting point. Some other sin offerings are eaten (Leviticus chapter 6), but not all of them.

These offerings, the ones which are not eaten, are instead taken outside the camp. Which ones are taken outside the camp? The offerings which are offered on behalf of "the people" rather than on just one person. In particular:
If the anointed priest sins, bringing guilt on the people, he must bring to the Lord a young bull without defect as a sin offering for the sin he has committed... But the hide of the bull and all its flesh ... all the rest of the bull--he must take outside the camp to a place ceremonially clean, where the ashes are thrown, and burn it in a wood fire on the ash heap.

If the whole Israelite community sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden in any of the Lord's commands,... the assembly must bring a young bull as a sin offering and present it before the Tent of Meeting. ... Then he [the priest] shall take the bull outside the camp and burn it as he burned the first bull. This is the sin offering for the community.
from Leviticus 4.3,11-14,21
This is all very interesting (or not), but so what? I'm not quite sure what's going on there, but it definitely means something (it doesn't mean nothing). One thing's for sure, it draws a bright white line between the normal sin offering and a sin offering that is for the whole community.

And over a thousand years later, the author of Hebrews noticed this distinction and applied it to the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus:
The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood.
Hebrews 13.11-12
So whatever else all that meant, it provided a picture by which future generations would understand the meaning of Jesus's sacrifice.

And that sacrifice is good news for you and me: "it shall be forgiven" is now available for everyone.

FAFSA, shamfsa

The FAFSA is done, the curse it is past
The first one now will later be last
As the present now will later be past...

(with apologies to Bob Dylan)

We did it, well, mostly it was me. Since our 1040 isn't filled in yet (I still need to get some stuff together for our Tax Man) I took the W-2s and guessed that the AGI would be as much different from Σ(w2) as it was last year... then checked websites for our investment accounts and the credit union (oops, website offline -- fall back onto my [failing] memory for that one), etc.

Fortunately I had the ducks all lined up beforehand, even asking the elder teen which schools to send the info to. Of course both she and I had our FAFSA PINs. Now they know we can afford to pay :( -- but at least it's over :). It only took half an hour from logon to "Please print this confirmation page" or whatever they say.

I celebrated by putting my shoes on and cutting the grass in the back yard. Some, ah, post-canine clean-up was required before doing that. It's a beautiful day here in sunny California - the Emerald Hills weather station says it's 66°F but it feels warmer than that.

And the sun always seems brighter after completing a fearful task like filling in the FAFSA. Profile/CSS? Not today.

What is college for?

So the elder teen is in the midst of decision-making... if she is admitted to Macalester (which in my view seems likely) then if I have this right she'll be choosing between it and Calvin.

Which brings to mind the questions
  • What is the purpose of college?
  • What is most needful for me in particular, that college would address?
So I googled on "what is college for" (no quotes) which led me to this 1986 article from Time, which talks about "real education" versus the idea of a trade school, among other things. Do colleges graduate technocrats rather than intellectuals?

Another result was What's College For? by Karabell. The reviews on indicate that the usual themes are covered...

Macalester's website basically brags about its intellectual orientation, as testified in reviews and rankings and in its statement of purpose. That purpose statement sounds reasonable, but there's not much to disagree with in it. I mean, it reads kinda like motherhood:
We believe that the benefit of the educational experience at Macalester is the development of individuals who make informed judgments and interpretations of the broader world around them and choose actions or beliefs for which they are willing to be held accountable.
It doesn't exactly sound like medical or engineering school, but nothing in there is antithetical to medical or engineering school. Or business school for that matter, though recent scandals might tempt one to think otherwise.

Calvin's website talks a lot about the Christian orientation -- from the "about Calvin" page to the quotes on the endorsements page. Here's their pitch:
What Makes Calvin Unique?
Calvin is the distinctively Christian, academically excellent liberal arts college that shapes minds for intentional participation in the renewal of all things.

  1. Profoundly Academic
  2. Purposeful Renewal
  3. Spirited Community
  4. Promising Futures
  5. Remarkable Investment
Well, I have to say that the Calvin pitch gives the stronger impression of something unique, and distinctively Christian. When I was much younger, thinking about getting through college quickly, relatives used to say, "You'll be working all your life; why rush into it?" An analogous thing here might be, "You'll most likely be working in an environment that's at best neutral toward your faith; why not take advantage of your college years to solidify your intellectual growth in an environment that will support your faith rather than opposing it?"

But I don't know what to recommend ultimately. There is plenty of time later in life for intellectual growth (I'm a case in point; I now regularly read things that would have bored me in my 20s), but that doesn't mean it should be neglected in college. And the same could be said about spiritual growth. My leanings are probably obvious from the above...

(a good essay should have a good concluding statement but i'm just going to go back to bed)

Friday, February 16, 2007


About every other week, I have lunch with a few guys, and we discuss a chapter from Patrick Morley's The Man in the Mirror. Today's chapter is about time management and priorities, and Morley makes the point that successful time management requires a system of priorities. This point is illustrated by the Master himself in today's New Testament reading.
Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: "Everyone is looking for you!"

Jesus replied, "Let us go somewhere else--to the nearby villages--so I can preach there also. That is why I have come."
Mark 1.35-38
How many ways does my life differ from this anecdote from Jesus's life? He gets up before everyone else and goes to a remote place to pray. Well, I might get up before everyone else, but they always know where to find me.

Apparently Jesus prays for quite a while. I don't often find -- or make -- time for extended periods of prayer. And when his disciples tell him, "Everyone is looking for you," he tells them that they're going somewhere else -- where I'd have a tendency to, you know, build on success or something.

Jesus always knew what his priorities were. He wasn't insensitive, but he wasn't controlled by anyone else's agenda, either. He had one set of priorities -- whereas some of us have two or three. I have a set I tell people if they ask. This varies minute by minute, I'm sorry to say, depending on who's asking, and maybe on what I think they want to hear.

Then there's the set I tell myself. That's the set I know I'm supposed to have. God, then family, then career, etc. Or something like that.

And there's the set I actually live. Which I don't actually know all the time. Sometimes, I look back at what I've done (particularly on a weekend) and I wonder why I did what I did. It might be because I'm living out a vision I got from my parents. Sometimes I avoid doing something for some reason that's not really clear to me. And sometimes I feel like I wasted hours, or a whole day; I don't know what happened to it.

I guess that's when I need to do what Jesus did in the start of the passage: pray and listen. And one other thing that Jesus didn't have to do: confess my foolishness/folly, my perplexity, my helplessness... "that we may receive mercy, and find grace to help in time of need."

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Teaching with Authority

Some years back, I heard Juan Carlos Ortiz talk about the concept of "teaching with authority." What does it mean? he asked. Of course it means that the preacher should practice what he preaches, that he walk the walk and not just talk the talk. Of course the preacher, or teacher, should be a person of integrity, and actually believe the things taught.

But whereas those may be requirements or prerequisites, they don't capture the essence of what it means to teach with authority. As Juan Carlos put it, "It means that we expect you to do what we tell you!"

Today's New Testament reading, from Mark 1, shows this dramatically. One sabbath day in Capernaum,
Jesus went into the synagogue to teach. The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. Just then, a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an evil spirit cried out, "What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? ...."

"Be quiet!" said Jesus sternly. "Come out of him!" The evil spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.

The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, "What is this? A new teaching -- and with authority! He even gives orders to evil spirits and they obey him."
from Mark 1.21-27
This passage is really astonishing in my view. I mean, the miraculous healing is astonishing in itself, but let's look at the structure of it, in particular, what it is specifically that Jesus does:
  • Jesus went into the synagogue to teach
  • People were amazed at his teaching
  • Jesus commands an evil spirit...
  • People were amazed about his teaching
What does the passage tell us about Jesus's teaching? No words are reported, but he commands an evil spirit and heals someone.
As a side note, I've heard that the rabbis typically taught by referring to what other rabbis said. You can see a 20th century example of this in Chaim Potok's marvelous book, The Chosen. Reb Saunders gives his people a sermon where he illustrates a point as, "Does not Rabbi Meir tell us..." and "What does Rabbi Akiva say?" and things like this. I don't think Jesus is ever recorded as having done this, as invoking another rabbi to make his point. Elsewhere in the Bible (Matthew 5 for example) he says, "You have heard it said... but I say to you...." He appeals to Scripture at times but I don't think he ever appeals to a rabbi for support.
Could it be... that what Mark means by "teaching" is exactly Jesus's command to the evil spirit, that the only teaching going on here is that of healing the man? That's what the structure seems to suggest.

And if that's the case (as I think it is), what is being taught? Well, what I learn from this action is: Jesus has authority over evil spirits! And if he has authority over evil spirits, then how much more over things that I sometimes worry about?

And so I can be sure that he has power and authority to heal what ails me -- or my relationships, or any situation at the office. And that's good news.

posted 2/16

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Prove your wisdom

In the film Spanglish, Flor, the housekeeper, confronts Adam Sandler's character. He's interfered in her family, she says, full of righteous indignation. He then tells her that she's done the same thing. She challenges him, and he shows her what she's done to intrude into his family's relationships.

In a telling moment (I think this is where he starts to fall in love with her), she stops and says, "You're right. I did interfere." What a great illustration of today's reading from Proverbs!
"Whoever corrects a mocker invites insult;
whoever rebukes a wicked man incurs abuse.
Do not rebuke a mocker or he will hate you;
rebuke a wise man and he will love you.
Proverbs 9:7-8
Sandler's character (the husband of Flor's employer) does a great thing for Flor: rather than write her off as a scoffer, he treats her as a wise woman by giving her a needed reproof.

On her side, she demonstrates her wisdom by accepting his reproof and acknowledging her fault.

Wnat about me? When confronted, do I hate my interlocutor, or am I grateful for the correction? Do I confront scoffers? Do I refrain from rebuking the wise?

What makes it easy or hard to accept correction? If I feel like I need to be right in your eyes, that will make it hard for me to accept reproof or correction from you. If, on the other hand, I already know I'm sometimes wrong, if I know that God loves me no matter what, and if I know that God has given you wisdom and that you're created in His image (in other words, if I'm wise!), that will make it easier.

May the Lord help us to discern the scoffers from the wise, and may he help us to become the latter.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Did you choose your God?

There's a 20th century idea that people choose their religion, or choose which god to follow. This idea does have some truth (see Joshua 24:15 for example), but today's reading from the psalms gives another perspective:
Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord,
the people he chose for his inheritance.
Psalm 33:12
It doesn't say, "Blessed is the nation... who made the Right Choice by choosing Him"; it says that he is the one making the choice. Come to think of it, this idea -- that God chooses people, not the other way round -- comes up in the first book of the Bible (in Genesis 18:19, we read that he chose Abraham) and the last (Revelation 17:14, chosen followers). Jesus talks about the elect in Matthew 24 and in John 15 he says explicitly, "You did not choose me, but I chose you..." And so does the Apostle Paul (Ephesians 1:4 for example).

And yet, there was a day when I decided to follow Jesus. How does that work, I wonder? Somehow God chose me -- and if you follow him, he chose you, too -- and at some point we get the experience of seeming to choose him as well.

Is that cool or what?

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Love languages??

Recently I've been hearing about "love languages." Supposedly there are five principal ways that people give and receive love. Other than sex I mean. Words of affirmation, acts of service, physical touch, gifts, quality time. Five of them. Supposedly each of us has a primary one, but I couldn't figure out what mine was, until recently.

A few days ago, I recalled that some of our friends from Richmond were coming to our church to meet with the missions committee, and we were invited too. A "pot luck." Well, I remembered a couple of years ago when one of them said "I might not be able to concentrate if I know curry is waiting for me," so I decided to make some. Not one of those things with a dozen different spices and clarified butter, but an easy one -- chop some vegetables and meat, and dissolve the "curry block" (bad stuff, full of saturated fats, high in salt...) into it. I started with the grass-fed beef yesterday afternoon. Stew meat, it was. You don't stir-fry this stuff; you cook it low and slow. Simmer it for hours you should. So it simmered while we went out watch Jenny sing her solo with the high school choir, drop Sheri off at her babysitting job, and eat dinner with friends.

This morning I added the onions, carrots, and potatoes. All that stuff was simmering when Carol and Sheri got up. I made pancakes (Jenny was already gone to church to prepare for the 8am service). Four with chocolate chips, the rest with fresh blueberries.

As I made the pancakes, I remembered Fred Rogers (of Mr. Rogers's Neighborhood) and his song about there being many ways to say "I love you." I wonder if the "love languages" people got the idea from old Mr. Rogers. Sheri purred when eating the chocolate chip pancakes. That's the eating way I guess. And I guess I practice the cooking way. Sounds like a Tony Hillerman book, The Cooking Way.

Anyway, I thought about the folks we were going to see at lunch time. One of them has been involved with missions to southeast Asia for something like sixty years. His children and grandchildren want him to slow down and stop doing so much work for missions, but he's not the type to waste his life on on cruises or in sitting around the pool all day.

Another fellow, the only paid employee of the mission organization we're supporting, does the programming for a radio outreach that has brought hundreds (maybe thousands) from this obscure "unreached people group" to the Lord. His voice is known by Christians from his minority group all over Viet Nam, Laos, Thailand. In fact, when he travels to Viet Nam he has to be careful not to talk too much, because officials of the
(anti-christian) government may recognize his voice too. For all the work he does for the mission, they pay him, well, let's just say it's a fraction of what I get at the office for what I do. And this isn't something he just does a couple weeks a year during vacation - he devotes a lot of his time to this stuff.

I really felt honored to be able to serve these guys. I wondered if I shouldn't be doing missions-related work more of the time.

Whose people is this, anyway?

Today's Old Testament reading includes what may be the funniest piece of dialogue in the whole Bible. The subject is very serious, but the dialogue cracks me up. Here's the deal. Moses has gone up the mountain, and he's been talking with God for some days, weeks actually. The people are down below, and they've told Aaron to make an idol for them to worship.
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf.... Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”

But Moses sought the favor of the Lord his God. “O Lord,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people.
from Exodus 32.7-12 (emphasis added)
Now this is not the kind of thing I usually hear in prayer meetings. It's not the kind of thing I usually pray. I mean, to me, Moses seems to be manipulating the Lord. Now it's not all manipulation -- he reminds God that these are his people (they never did belong to Moses) after all. But then he says, "Why should the Egyptians say thus and such about you?"

The astonishing thing is that it seems to work! The Lord relents and doesn't destroy them.

But wait, is that really possible? Does Moses actually change God's mind? Well, I don't know for sure, but I don't think so. The prophets tell us that God knows the end from the beginning, and that he does not change -- or change his mind. Maybe it's a paradox, but here's what I think is happening.

I think Moses is exasperated with the people. He's frustrated and angry, and may be thinking violent thoughts. Perhaps he'd rather they all go away ... but his thoughts aren't fully formed. So I think God is showing Moses the logical conclusion of those thoughts and giving Moses a chance to repent of them. A little reverse psychology, like.

And that's the thing that actually works: God changes Moses’s mind, rather than the reverse. And further on down, in verse 32, we see Moses’s dedication to these folks:
But now, please forgive their sin--but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written.
Which reminds me of Paul's comment in Romans 9:
I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race...
Romans 9.2-3
This is a greater love than I'll probably ever have for people I don't know. And there aren't many people I do know that I love that way. May God widen my heart to be more like that!

posted 2/14

Saturday, February 10, 2007

What’s really “natural”

When I was in high school, we were told about Locke's contract theory of government, which is neatly summarized in the Declaration of Independence as a set of "self-evident" truths. But that summary leaves out the part about the "natural state" of man. I guess Locke said (I'm going from memory of the lectures) that man has natural rights in the natural state, but there are problems with the natural state because there are different interpretations of those rights.

Today's Old Testament reading contradicts Locke by saying that the natural state of man is rather unhappy, and that he needs help so as not to get himself killed. Here's one mention of the issue for the general population:
Then the Lord said to Moses, "When you take a census of the Israelites to count them, each one must pay the Lord a ransom for his life at the time he is counted. Then no plague will come on them when you number them.
Exodus 30.11-12
Wrath and plague seem to be part of the natural state of man. This is something we don't think about much these days. And it's not just the general populace; it's the priests too!
Then the Lord said to Moses, "Make a bronze basin, with its bronze stand, for washing. Place it between the Tent of Meeting and the altar, and put water in it. Aaron and his sons are to wash their hands and feet with water from it. Whenever they enter the Tent of Meeting, they shall wash with water so that they will not die. Also, when they approach the altar to minister by presenting an offering made to the Lord by fire, they shall wash their hands and feet so that they will not die. This is to be a lasting ordinance for Aaron and his descendants for the generations to come."
Exodus 30.17-21
Did you notice the repeated phrase, "so that they will not die"? Talk about tough job requirements: they have to do it exactly this way or they get killed! But it certainly gives the impression that the "natural state" of man is not a happy thing.

I think many of us have an intuitive sense that this is true, but without the hope of redemption. Last night, on A Prairie Home Companion, there was a scene that actually used that word! It was about mistakes made in the past, what could be done now (or back then); a caricature psychologist from a big-name university says that the entire course of your life is set by the time you're ten. "Is there no hope of redemption?" asks the incredulous narrator. Not if you believe some things being said today.

But of course the truth is different, and better. Even in the days of Aaron's priesthood, the point of the priests was to come before God on behalf of sinners -- sinners like themselves, people like you and me. And in the New Testament we learn about Jesus as the atonement, who provides the way that we can escape the (deadly) natural state. And that's good news.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Take, eat; this is my body...

Churches throughout the world practice "The Lord's Supper" (or simply "Communion") -- some do this weekly or even more frequently, some only occasionally. They use different forms of bread and wine, but they all quote Jesus's words "This is my body" (Matthew 26.26) and "This is my blood... which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins" (26.27).

Have you ever wondered what that was like for the disciples? Today's Old Testament reading, which talks about the installation of Aaron and his sons as priests, gives us a picture that may be relevant:
"Take the ram for the ordination and cook the meat in a sacred place. At the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, Aaron and his sons are to eat the meat of the ram and the bread that is in the basket. They are to eat these offerings by which atonement was made for their ordination and consecration. But no one else may eat them, because they are sacred.
Exodus 29.31-33
The disciples no doubt knew about this priestly ritual, and when Jesus said, "This is my body" and handed them the bread, it probably felt a little strange. Their leader, their teacher, their friend -- he was going to be the atonement for them. Meaning that he had to die for their sake. And though they would be eating bread (of which Jesus said, "this is my body") rather than his actual body... well, it still must have felt rather strange.

This is something most of us don't think a lot about today. We may talk to God about things we're concerned about, we try to do what's right, we read the Bible. But the idea that somebody had to die in my place - that's not a happy thought.

But the good news is that he did die for your sins and mine -- and he did it willingly, so great is his love. Something good to remember, just in case you or I ever feel unloved...

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Judgment Day

Jesus talked a lot about unsettling things, among them the day of judgment, when he would separate, as he said, the sheep from the goats. I don't know why it is, but goats, which provide milk and cheese and can clean up poison oak like nobody's business, apparently had a bad reputation even in Biblical times. In this sermon, Jesus talks about separating the sheep from the goats, with the sheep (the righteous) on his right:
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
Matthew 25.34-36
Do you get the feeling that the poor are important to Jesus?

Well, of course they are. But I wonder... why does he focus on just one of his priorities in this account? What about the greatest commandment - to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength? What about eschewing violence?

Here's my take on it. First, let's see who he's talking to. I think he's still talking to the disciples who came to him privately (24.3). So these are people who already know about avoiding idolatry and violence and this sort of thing; they know the command to love the Lord, and so on. I think he's giving them some ideas of how to express that love -- what it means in practice to love the Lord.

Second, this is one parable in a series. Before this is the parable of the young women with the lamps (25.1) and the parable of the talents (25.14). I think this one about the poor is a corrective for the tendency many of us have to get involved in "religious" activities to the point of forgetting the poor. The tendency to be so heavenly minded, as the saying goes, that we're no earthly good.

May the Lord help us to avoid this pitfall. May we remember the poor as we worship him, and may we remember him in whatever else we do.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

How much is your talent worth?

Today's New Testament reading includes the parable of the "talents," named after the amount of money entrusted to various servants.
"Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey.
Matthew 25.24-15
A talent is something like 75 or 90 pounds - "as much as a grown man can carry" is what I remember from some dictionary or another. Let's call it 80 to make computing easier, and let's say 12 (Troy) ounces to the pound, so that's 960 ounces. What's gold at today? $400 an ounce? That would be $384,000 for each talent.

That's quite a lot of money, but in those days it was worth even more, counted in terms of a day's wages, or in terms of buying power. What I see here is that the least able person was given, not a few coins, but what would have been considered a fortune to manage.

OK, so I'm cheating by using the English word "talent" to refer to skills and abilities here, but it strikes me that the skills and special abilities of any one of us, properly applied, can do wonderful things on the master's behalf. A little further down, we read that the 5-talent guy doubled the master's money, and the 2-talent guy did likewise. But the 1-talent guy, having buried the talent in the ground, has no gain to show. He makes a little speech:
"Then the man who had received the one talent came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’
Matthew 25.24-25
Whoa! What could this guy have been thinking? Was he angry because the master gave him only one talent, versus the two or five the other servants got? Was he angry because the master gave him too much -- nearly $400,000 -- to manage, rather than a more reasonable amount? And what did he mean by insulting the master?

But then I sometimes wonder... how many of us are angry with God because of not being given as much as someone else? Or because we have more problems (or so we think) than others have?

It's Sunday-School-ish to say, "count your blessings" or "be grateful for what you have," but I don't guess that makes it totally wrong, either. I mean, if even the least talented among us has a small fortune's worth (or more!) of abilities and skills to bring blessing into the world, isn't that an awesome opportunity?

Well, I'm not sure how close that was to the original meaning of the parable, but that's what I got out of it today. What will I do today with what I've been given? May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing to the Lord, and may they bring blessing to the world.

revised 2008-02-09

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

No one knows the day or the hour... but maybe the year?

In today's New Testament reading, Jesus talks about the timing of the end of the age:
"No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
Matthew 24.36
Throughout history, and particularly in the past century, people have tried to figure out when this would happen. Recently, I heard on the radio someone who said that we may not know the day or the hour, but that he's got an idea about the year. It might be 2011, he says, based on the idea that it would be 7000 years after the flood. That in turn was based on the verse saying "a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like a day" to the Lord, and something about a week. Oh, and that the flood happened around 4990 BC.

The logic is questionable at best, and the interpretation shady, but I can hardly blame the guy for trying to figure it out. Wouldn't we all like to know?

But Jesus doesn't seem very interested in telling us when. Instead he tells us what we need to be doing.
"Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. I tell you the truth, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, ‘My master is staying away a long time,’ and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards.
Matthew 24.45-49
We need to be taking care of those we're responsible for. And I just noticed something: Jesus talks about someone "put in charge of the servants". He's talking to people in leadership here. Looking back to the beginning of the chapter, in verse 3 we read that the disciples came to him privately to ask him about these things, particularly the timing.

Does that mean that you're off the hook if you don't have responsibilities? Or that I am? H'm... well, I think we all have responsibilities, spheres of influence, people we should be helping and serving, if not literally feeding.

And speaking of feeding, it's my turn to chop and cook vegetables tonight. Better keep at it!

posted 2/7, written 2/6

Monday, February 05, 2007

Drucker the prescient

You've heard about, um, what's his name?, Treacy maybe (looks like TREE-see but pronounced like Tracy)? with the three paths to biz success: operational efficiency, superior technology, customer intimacy?

I happened to see this just now in Drucker's Managing for Results (H&R 1964), p. 200:
General Motors, for instance, clearly prizes excellence in business development and business management (operational efficiency). At General Electric, on the other hand, people were for many years encouraged not to concern themselves much with business, but to excel as scientists or engineers (superior technology). IBM, until recently, stressed the ability to produce sales and customers, with the district sales manager the key man (customer intimacy - sort of)
(green italics mine)
When did Treacy's book come out (Discipline of Market Leaders, 1997?) -- and how many years earlier did Drucker point out practically the same thing - 30 or more? The guy was a genius.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Take the name of the Lord in vain? What's that?

The editors of the New International Version (NIV) render the third commandment "You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God...," which, though a little less obscure than "take... in vain", leaves unanswered the question, "What exactly is being prohibited here?"

As a little boy, I may have asked my mother about this -- I'm not sure -- but I somehow got the idea that this commandment was about cussing. Which it is, sort of, but only peripherally; this Third Commandment (out of ten!) is, according to what I heard a few years ago, really about something far more serious. Come to think of it, this happens a fair amount in Israel's history, and the Lord seems pretty seriously aggrieved when it happens.

Here's what it means to misuse the Lord's name, or to take the name of the Lord in vain: it means to attach the name of the Lord to something that he's not behind. So if I have a dream -- a project that I'm excited about or whatever -- then I can say "I have a project I'm excited about" or "I have a dream..." and there's no problem. But if I say "The Lord told me to do this project" then I'm probably taking the name of the Lord in vain -- and if I know I'm just making it up then I am certainly taking his name in vain, misusing the name of the Lord.

So when false prophets say, "Thus says the Lord," and the Lord has not said that, they're misusing the name of the Lord; they are attaching his name to an empty thing, a vain thing.

And since some of my dreams or wishes are pretty empty, pretty vain, there's certainly a temptation to dress 'em up and make them seem more important by saying they're God's projects or plans rather than mine. Jonestown is a horrible example of what can happen when God's name is stuck onto somebody's project; so is 9-11.

So I guess the thing is to be careful: if I think the Lord is doing something, then it may be OK to say that I think the Lord is doing something. But if I want something to happen a certain way, and if I say the Lord does too, then I'd better be pretty certain that I'm not just making it all up. And if somebody else says the Lord wants to do something, then it's wise to see if that person is just putting God's name on his own project, versus discerning what the Lord is doing on His own initiative.

At least I have your lovely sister

The elder teen was in one of the school offices, when a teacher from last semester saw her. "You miss me," he said in sing-song. "You know you miss my class..." He picked up a little bell, tinkling it near her ear.

She misses him, but not the class. The class was pretty tough, and not everything in it was all that useful. How many presidents from the 16th to the 30th served exactly two terms? (The answer on the exam was just the number, which you got right or wrong; you don't write down the names and get partial credit for remembering some of them.) (btw I just made up those numbers)

I asked, "Did he say he missed you?"

Yes, he did. "Well, I miss you. But at least I've got your lovely sister. She's a great artist." (The younger teen is in his class the whole year.)

"Right," she replied. "She is lovely, and she is a great artist."

Saturday, February 03, 2007

What you are doing is not good

Today's Old Testament passage reminded me of a time I interpreted the sermon at Kobe Bible Fellowship. Interpreting a sermon was both harder and easier than I thought it would be -- easier because Tomohiro-san walked me through the message beforehand, and harder because I couldn't possibly remember all the new vocabulary, and also because standing in front of a crowd is always nervous-making for an introvert like me.

But here was the setting. Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, comes to see him in the desert, bringing Moses’ wife and their children. Moses must have figured the thing with
confronting Pharaoh and the plagues and all would have been rather much to have his wife and children watch. So Jethro comes to visit, and he hears all about the deliverance from Egypt, and the next day he sees Moses sitting as judge, and people coming to him "from morning till evening" (Exodus 18.13). Jethro asks him what this is all about (presumably he does not speak Hebrew) and Moses explains. Here's the interesting part.
Moses’ father-in-law replied, “What you are doing is not good. You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone. Listen now to me and I will give you some advice, and may God be with you.
Exodus 18.17-19
Jethro goes on to explain the idea of delegation, of building the organization's capabilities -- what some present-day management gurus call "sharpening the saw" (or the axe) -- or what Oncken used to call "moving the fulcrum" (think "leverage" and "lever"). What Moses should do, he says, is to teach the people about God's laws, and appoint people of integrity to serve as judges over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens.

Moses takes Jethro's advice, and it works.

I wondered briefly why this story was considered important enough to include in the Bible. Was it so that we would know, 3,000 years later, that one can go to business school (as either a student or instructor) and still follow God?

Here's what I think, which is also what Tomohiro-san's sermon was about: that when information comes, it's worth listening to, even if it's in the form of a rebuke. When somebody doesn't like my work, my immediate reaction is to think, "It's not that bad, is it? I did it because..."

But better to listen, see what useful truth is in the advice (which can sometimes be tactless), and take what's good. Because most of the time, critics (used in the positive sense here) have good intentions. And even if they don't, they still might have something useful to tell us.

And what makes it possible to reduce our defensiveness, to listen for truth rather than being defensive? What I've found is that when I can remember I belong to God, that he is the one I ultimately answer to, that my identity and self-worth isn't based on how well I do things or how popular I am -- that's when advice and rebuke is easier to take.

May we remember today whose we are and who we are ultimately.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Daily Bread

Do you know that line in the "Lord's Prayer" that says Give us this day our daily bread? Today's Old Testament reading shows us what "daily bread" might mean, literally. At this point, the people of Israel had left Egypt; they've crossed the Red Sea miraculously on dry ground while the pursuing Egyptian army drowned; and they're now out of food.
Then the Lord said to Moses, "I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day...."
from Exodus 16.4
There's an interesting pattern to this stuff; it falls six days out of seven, and the stuff spoils when kept overnight, usually. But what really fascinates me about this stuff is that it ceases to feel miraculous after a while.

On one hand, it's surprising. Imagine -- you're out in the desert with nothing to eat, and one morning all this edible stuff appears on the ground. And the next morning too. But they get used to it, come to expect it, come to despise it.

How about us? Could we get used to bread falling from heaven six days out of seven? I think yes. I don't know about you, but when I look at the things I'm used to right now, I'm astonished.

I wake up every morning; in spite of all the things that could have happened during the night, I'm still here, and have been for over half a century. In spite of all the dangers, including crazy drivers on the freeways, the San Andreas fault, toxic chemicals all over the valley -- in spite of all those, my wife and children are alive and with me. Several times a week, I open a metal box, climb into it, and am transported faster than the fastest man has ever run. And every morning, my little part of the world rotates in such a way that a golden ball of fire appears to rise in the eastern sky, bringing light and beauty for us to see.

I've gotten used to all those things -- I could certainly get used to bread from heaven. I could even start to complain about it. (Come to think of it, I do complain sometimes about my six-times-a-week oatmeal.) So, though I've sometimes thought of these Israelites as being silly (Weren't they rescued miraculously from their captors? Weren't they fed miraculously every day? Why then could they doubt God?) I have to confess that I'm silly myself. (Haven't I been blessed just as much as they were? Why then do I sometimes doubt?)

May we receive every blessing today with appreciation. May we see them for the gifts that they are, and not take them for granted. Let's receive them with joy. This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Seven deadly sins? No, that's another list

Driving the kids to school this morning, I was making a right turn onto Marsh. The light hadn't yet turned green for me, but there was a big gap in the right-hand lane, so I went for it. A quick check revealed a 60-plus foot gap on my left, so I slid into it, pursued closely by a red Land Rover, who followed me as we went for the left-turn light (still green!) on Bay Road.

I remarked that the Land Rover didn't look too happy about being behind me (he was following pretty close) "but," I added, "if he'd been driving a little faster, he'd be in front of me."

"Oh Dad," said the elder teen in mock(?) exasperation, "you're such a boy."

I was speechless.

OK, being a boy isn't a Deadly Sin™, and it isn't on the list from today's reading either. And where did the Catholic church get that list of deadly sins, anyway? Not having grown up Catholic, I never memorized them; I only have a vague idea, from Art Buchwald, that they include pride, gluttony, sloth, envy, and lust. Today's reading in Proverbs has this list:
There are six things the Lord hates,
seven that are detestable to him:
  • haughty eyes,
  • a lying tongue,
  • hands that shed innocent blood,
  • a heart that devises wicked schemes,
  • feet that are quick to rush into evil,
  • a false witness who pours out lies
  • and a man who stirs up dissension among brothers.
Proverbs 6.16-19
The lists do overlap some, but they're far from identical.

Here's something I noticed, though: Ever heard the phrase "hate the sin, love the sinner"? One can hate the proud look (as I believe the King James Version has it) without hating the person who has it. But look at the end of the list! It says the Lord hates, he detests a false witness. And he detests a man (or woman I suppose) who stirs up dissension among brothers.

What's that about? Can it really mean that? I'm not really sure, but anyway there's a list of things I want to be really careful not to have, or to be. So help me God.

Don't show me that stuff

Yesterday the lovely Carol went to the store and came back with some sweet snack food. She told me about it after dinner, but she added, "Better not let me see it." She explained that "if I see it, I'll want it."

This immediately came to my mind (but not to my lips; the kids were nearby): "Better not take your clothes off in front of me...."