Saturday, March 31, 2007

The king should set an example -- and so should you

Today's Old Testament reading, from Deuteronomy, gives the children of Israel a command about their future kings.
14When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you ... and you say, "Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us," 15be sure to appoint over you the king the Lord your God chooses.... 16The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself.... 17He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.

18When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law... 19It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees 20and not consider himself better than his brothers and turn from the law to the right or to the left. Then he and his descendants will reign a long time over his kingdom in Israel.
from Deuteronomy 17:14-20
So what is this list of commands about? Why are they given? And so what? Here's my take on it. Kings have the same set of tendencies that the rest of us do, and these commands appear to be a set of prudent practices -- they are ways to avoid certain kinds of trouble. Especially that last one -- write a copy of the Law and read it all the days of his life.

But in addition to that precept, there are three prohibitions: against acquiring a lot of horses, wives, and cash
(there's actually a fourth, about going back to Egypt, which most of them avoided). I would think the temptation would be tremendous to raise a standing army of mounted troops. Especially if you're a fairly small country surrounded by powerful, ancient enemies. Same deal with political marriages. And money? Hey, in the U.S. we have a whole department, a Cabinet-level position, to deal with the treasury (only ours has a negative balance).

This was quite a counter-cultural command given here, one that foresaw some of the difficulties of Solomon's reign. The kingdom of Israel was to be something entirely unlike the kingdoms of the rest of the world.

What's the lesson here for us today, in the church age? I think the temptation is tremendous for us Christians, or us as the church universal, to raise piles of money, to try to move the levers of political power, etc. In other words, to act like any other interest group.

How are we to be "entirely unlike" the kingdoms of the world? And how am I personally to be "entirely unlike" those who do not know our Lord? I'm not sure about the answers, but I am sure that "Uh, we're supposed to act differently from everyone else? Really?" is not it.

We've been called out, set apart -- like the children of Israel were. They had some successes and some failures, just as we do. I'm not sure what specifically I'm to do with today's passage, other than to remember that we're called to be different, set apart. You can probably think of some specifics.

If I come up with anything non-obvious, I'll let you know.

posted 4/2

Why are projects late? And how to fix that.

I used to work with this very interesting fellow -- I'll call him "Roger" ('cause that's his name) -- who had some great ideas about project management. After some investigation and some brilliant insights, he shrank software development schedules without cutting quality or features, and without spending more money or getting people to work longer hours. He did this both in a large company (HP) and in small startups in the ’90s. For some years, I nagged him to write a book about it, but never succeeded in persuading him to do so.

Fast forward to 2007. I'm talking with Lissa, who I think also knew Roger at HP, and she mentions one of these ideas. "Brilliant!" I say. "Did you learn that from Roger, or did you come up with it yourself?"

Neither -- she got it from Goldratt's Critical Chain. Whoa, was this the book Roger was supposed to write? I ordered it from and found out: He doesn't have everything Roger came up with, but he's got a lot. I think every manager and every director in Engineering ought to read this book (and probably more by this guy), but let me outline why projects are late and some things you can do about it. Page numbers below are taken from Goldratt's book, in the above edition.
  1. They shouldn't be late!
    • People put safety factors in their estimates
      (NOTE: given the typical distribution for completion times, P(success) of 80% implies the estimate is 3x the median, i.e., padded 200% -- pp. 43-46)
    • Managers take the padded estimates and add their own padding
    Hence we have safety and more safety, but projects are still late!

  2. In a sequence of steps... (pp. 121-122)
    • delays from one step are passed on in full to the next one;
    • worse, the longest delay from all steps is passed on to the next (dependent) step;
    • advances ("We finished early!") in one step generally do not result in an early start on the next step
    Roger reminds me that Dan used to call this the "idiot shift right" -- slide the schedule to the right and the past is forgotten.

  3. People don't start on a task until they think they have to (the so-called "student syndrome", p. 124); since estimates are all padded, they don't even start when they say they will.
    Two other factors cause later starts in the general case: one is the desire to postpone investment (present value of money, pp. 68-69) and another is the desire to limit the number of irons currently in the fire -- in other words, management focus is a scarce resource (p. 70)
  4. In some situations, critical resources are forced to multitask based on conflicting priorities; this can easily double lead-time on all paths (p. 126)

  5. The key step in fixing this is to make "safety" explicit and visible. Goldratt calls it the "buffer" (pp. 153-155). Roger called it "contingency" or "contingency account". Any of these phrases can work, but the idea is that when your step takes more time than you thought, that eats into the buffer/contingency.

    • You track the current "balance" in the contingency account, or the amount left in the "buffer", and that will tell you how well things are going. (p. 163). Do not track due dates, or that will trigger the student syndrome!
      Also -- don't track percentage of resources/time used versus projected; that makes it look like you're on time even when you aren't (p. 73), and will tend to optimize the wrong management behavior (pp. 73-74).
    • Goldratt has the "project buffer" only on the critical path; he creates "feeding buffers" at the places where noncritical paths join the critical path (p. 158), "resource buffers" (which I'm too dense to understand, p. 160), and the eponymous "critical chain" (pp. 213-219), etc. According to Goldratt's paradigm, it is very important to keep track of which path/chain really is critical so that you can subordinate (pp. 159-160) noncritical paths to the critical path and thus reduce multi-tasking (which is evil, p. 126)

    • In contrast, Roger made a PERT chart and then locked it away somewhere. Instead of trying to figure out when the critical path is late, he wants to know when any task takes longer than estimated. This is far less complex than Goldratt's schema, and also takes into account a reality that Goldratt ignores: that dependencies aren't really "hard."
      Roger used to say, "If you really can't make any progress on anything because you're waiting on someone else, take some time off. And no need to report it to HR -- it's on me." Because if you think a little, you almost always can find something to do that will move the project ahead. And no one has ever taken him up on his offer.

      Roger's secret weapon on this front was: "Well, is your documentation complete?" That might have something to do with why nobody took him up on his offer.

      I tend to think Roger has it right, i.e., that managers tend to take the "critical path" a little too seriously.

      The other thing he did was to create a "right-to-left" PERT chart, the "integration plan", which mathematically "should be identical" to the usual (left-to-right) one. But there's some effect of doing it in the "reverse" direction that makes the critical path stand out.

    Whether Goldratt's scheme (with a lot of focus on the critical path, various buffers, critical chain, etc.) or Roger's (one "contingency account", treat the critical path with benign neglect) is ultimately correct, I think the first step is to Just Do It™ -- take a step away from "pad everybody's schedule and track milestones", toward a tracking scheme based on buffer(s) (or contingency account(s)).
I obviously have not done justice to Goldratt's book (I've only read this one), and certainly not to Roger's management ideas, but this is a start, anyway.

Roger read the above and emailed me back the other day, to clarify and remind me of some things I'd forgotten. The green text is my summary of his comments.
— collin 2007-04-10

Friday, March 30, 2007

Twelve years of...

Today's New Testament reading retells a story we've covered before, but reading it this time, in Luke's words, I wondered why the coincidence:
41Then a man named Jairus, a ruler of the synagogue, came and fell at Jesus' feet, pleading with him to come to his house 42because his only daughter, a girl of about twelve, was dying. As Jesus was on his way, the crowds almost crushed him. 43And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years, but no one could heal her.
Luke 8:41-43
You probably remember the rest of the story: the woman touches his cloak, and Jesus, sensing power had gone out from him, stopped right there and began looking around. "Who touched my clothes?" he asked.

The disciples, being literal-minded (I don't blame them!) replied, "Who around here didn't touch your clothes??" but then the woman came forward and told him her whole story. Meanwhile, some come from Jairus's house saying, "Your daughter is dead; why bother the Teacher any more?" (One of my teen-agers suggested that perhaps Jairus's daughter died at the moment the woman was healed?)

So my question is this: "Why is it so interesting to Luke that both the daughter's life and the woman's bleeding were to this point twelve years old?"

Here's a possibility: Jairus and his wife had enjoyed a blessing for twelve years, a blessing they feared might be near to an end. Meanwhile the woman suffered from a curse for twelve years, a curse she feared might continue forever. In this one story, Jesus both abolished the curse and restored the blessing.

I think both Mark and Luke were showing the same thing here: that a long-standing blessing can be extended (when you thought it might be over) and that a long-standing curse can be abolished (when you thought you might be stuck with it).

So for us today... is there something that you've been enjoying for a long time, that you're afraid may end soon? Is there something you've been suffering with for a long time, that you're afraid of being stuck with forever? The message I take from this passage is that Jesus has the power to address both kinds of fears.

posted 3/31

Thursday, March 29, 2007

All religions the same?

Have you ever heard people say that all religions teach the same thing, or that they are like different roads that all lead to the same destination? The sermon at our church a couple of weeks ago mentioned that idea, which I find really strange. Yes, many religions teach some things that are true, but that's far from saying that they are all the same, or that they all lead to the same place. Whenever this idea comes up, I always think about the treatment of widows. The Bible talks a lot about caring for widows and orphans, and in fact the first recorded church fight (in Acts chapter 6) was because people felt some widows weren't being given enough. This stands in stark contrast to the practice of burning widows. One religion says, "Feed them," and another says " the fire!" And these are the same? I don't think so.

Another example comes from today's Old Testament reading.
30“[T]ake heed that you ... do not inquire about their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? -- that I also may do likewise.’31You must not do so...; for every abominable thing which the Lord hates they have done for their gods; for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods.
Deuteronomy 12:30-31
Not to put too fine a point on it, but burning your children as an act of worship is a very different practice than bringing them up "in the discipline and instruction of the Lord" (Ephesians 6:4).

Given these astonishing contrasts, how is it that people can say that all religions teach the same thing, or lead to the same conclusion? Here are a couple of things that come to mind.

First, you can find people of different religions that are very nice, or very peaceful, or very mature, or very spiritual. And by the same token, you can find people of different religions that are not very nice, peaceful, mature, spiritual. So it's not obvious that believing in one religion will make you (or me) better than somebody else who believes in another religion. So... how do I explain that? Here's what I think. I think that just about every religion teaches some truth, and to the extent that we obey the truth (whatever its source), we are better people.

Second, people are basically lazy. Many years ago, I looked in the encyclopedia to learn about thought. What I found was that, at least according to this encyclopedia, thinking is something that people do when they have a problem to solve. We don't think, in other words, unless we have to.

This laziness, plus our desire to justify ourselves, brings us to... well, let me put it this way. If all religions are the same, that means I don't have to pay attention to any one of them. If they're equally true, then I can pick what I like. If right-wing _______s say we don't have to care about the poor but left-wing ________s say we do, then maybe today I'll be a right-wing-er. Tomorrow, when I discover that _______ say we have to pray 7 times a day but ________ say we don't have to, then I may prefer to identify myself with the latter. If I believe all religions are the same, then I can believe that I can do whatever I like. Or nothing, if I feel like that.

If I believe religions are different, that some might have key aspects of the truth that others miss, that lays an obligation upon me to find the truth, but if I deny that any one has more truth than any other, I then let myself off the hook.

Now there's some wishful thinking!

posted 3/30

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

A lovely theory of bias, beaten up by an ugly gang of facts...

When I was a junior in high school, back in the last century, my English teacher used to say about the Bible, "Remember who's telling the story." Every reporter has a point of view (not to say "bias"!), history is written by the victors, etc., and the Bible is no exception. As a naive 11th grader, I ate this stuff up; I believed that the Bible portrayed its writers in a favorable light (which is what I would do in print -- it's what I do in my mind all the time... just like you).

But then I ran into passages like this one from today's Old Testament reading:
4After the Lord your God has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, "The Lord has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness." No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is going to drive them out before you. 5It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the Lord your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. 6Understand, then, that it is not because of your righteousness that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people.
Deuteronomy 9:4-6
So here is an ugly gang of facts beating up on my English teacher's lovely theory:
  • Three times in as many verses, the text says the people of Israel are not getting "this good land" based on their own merit.
  • Four times in the same passage, the Lord is identified as the one giving them the land; their own strength or power is never credited.
  • The people of Israel are characterized as "a stiff-necked people," hardly a flattering description.
  • Finally, this is not a unique passage; the Bible has lots of passages that talk about how the people of Israel were weak and few in number (rather than strong, more numerous than the other peoples, virtuous, etc.)
So all that is very interesting, but what does it mean for you or me today? Well, if you believe, as I do, that these accounts of Israel aren't just history but also paint a picture of the church, then the short list above have points that you and I should remember when we are tempted to feel proud or self-satisfied. In particular,
  • Any blessing that we receive from the Lord is not because of our merit (righteousness or integrity)
  • It is not my own strength and power that brings blessings to me, but the Lord is the source of every good thing
  • In fact, we all have many flaws (whether or not the phrase "stiff-necked" applies to you or to me individually)
At the same time, when a blessing comes our way, when we receive a compliment, when someone recognizes some accomplishment the Lord has enabled us to do, or some area that the Lord has enabled us to grow in, it's fine to rejoice in that, so long as we don't forget to, in the words of the song,
Praise God from whom all blessings flow.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Remember to remember

Today's Old Testament reading is from Deuteronomy, the second giving of the law, the longest sermon in the entire Bible (and maybe in the history of humankind). Here Moses warns them not to forget, and gives them some clues for how to remember:
10When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. 11Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. 12Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, 13and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, 14then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
Deuteronomy 8:11-14
So I see three things that sort of overlap: First, praise the Lord. Someone told me once that we thank the Lord for what he's done, whereas we praise him for who he is. Of course a lot of "who he is" we know by "what he does." I tend to lump praise and thanks together, as the psalmist said, "Praise him for his mighty deeds." So praise and thanks is one.

The second thing I see is that we must take care to remember. The day before yesterday, we had "communion" at church, or "celebrated the Lord's table." This is a sacrament, a ceremony, in which common bread and grape juice (in the early church it was wine, but we live in California and some people under 21 might be in the congregation) are used to help us remember the Lord's sacrifice and some of his final words. There are other things we do to remember things God has done for us; sometimes these seem like rituals, and maybe they are. But they don't have to be empty rituals if we use them to remember him. Maybe we praise and thank him when we remember, too, so this second thing overlaps with the first.

The third thing I see here is to do what he said. We must observe his commands. What commands? I'll tell you what comes to mind, three things that Jesus said:
  • The greatest command: Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30 maybe?)
  • The second is like the first, love your neighbor as yourself (quoting Leviticus 19:18 if I recall correctly)
  • A new command I give you, that you love one another as I have loved you (John 13:34)
Three, not even ten. But a tough list.

I'll tell you what I'm thinking right now. That it is very hard to do these commands. (That's why they're commands, I guess; if they were easy, there wouldn't be any need to command them.) Especially that last one -- to love my brothers and sisters as Jesus has loved us. I want people to like me and appreciate what I say to them. Is that so bad? Well, maybe. If it means I'm using them (to feel good about myself), rather than serving them -- or as Peck said, extending myself to further the spiritual growth of another -- then yes, it is so bad.

Sheesh -- no wonder the Pharisees preferred to weigh out herbs or count coins or steps and debate the meaning of the Scriptures and all that religious stuff! It's a lot easier on the old ego than serving selflessly.

But as for me, may God grant me strength to do his commands, and may I step out in that strength to serve him. And I wish that for you, too.

Monday, March 26, 2007

A widow's only son

In today's New Testament reading, Jesus travels to the town of Nain upsets the apple cart, so to speak.
12As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out--the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the town was with her.
Luke 7.12
A few years ago, when we studied this passage with some friends from Japan, we used a bilingual study guide written by a Finnish missionary who lived many years in Japan. Mailis has some great questions, and the last time I looked, she had them available for free download on her website. Searching on "Glad Tidings Mailis" (no quotes) will get you there in a few clicks at most.

Back to the passage: It's hard for many of us to imagine the hardships faced by a widow in those times. If I remember correctly, they had no legal rights. This widow's claim to her husband's property may have depended on her son's being alive; in losing her only son, she may have also been losing her dead husband's land as well.
13When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, "Don't cry."
Luke 7.13
In her study guide, Mailis mentioned that Jesus also says to you and to me today, "Don't cry." What burdens and griefs do we have, do I have, in which Jesus wants to comfort us? What makes it difficult to receive comfort from him, or what makes it easy to receive? I think in this case, the widow was perplexed, because she didn't know what Jesus was going to do next:
14Then he went up and touched the coffin, and those carrying it stood still. He said, "Young man, I say to you, get up!" 15The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother.
Luke 7.14-15
An astonishing development! I wonder how the mother's relationship with her son changed after this. (I also wonder what he said when he started talking.) Had she been taking him for granted I wonder? And was it different after this incident?

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Don't instantiate this!

One of the things I learned, maybe in algebra class, was the idea of taking a "law" (something like ∀xx+1=1+x), and instantiating it — taking the universal and applying it to a particular instance (say, 3+1=1+3). Now it would be a mistake to say that the commutative property of addition (or worse, any operation on an Abelian group) is exactly 3+1=1+3, and yet that is what people apparently tend to do with God. Today's Old Testament reading, from Deuteronomy, talks about trying to make God concrete. It's not exactly about instantiation, but more about reducing God All-Powerful to, well, the form of a calf or something.
15You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, 16so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, 17or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, 18or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below.
Deuteronomy 4:15-18
I think there's something important in this passage, because I know that we humans like to make the invisible visible, or the abstract concrete. How does it apply today? That is, if I'm doing the equivalent thing today, how could I tell? How could anyone?

Back in Moses’ day, you could tell because people burned incense in front of an altar. I mean you could see it. But I don't burn incense to anything today, and I don't have an altar. Somehow I don't think that means I'm off the hook though.

In "The Devil Wears Prada," the protagonist is told (by her soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend) that her primary relationship is with the person "whose calls you always take." But since God doesn't usually call me on the phone, I can't apply that test to my life either.

Here are two possible tests, maybe two forms of the same one. Where do I think meaning and safety come from? Well, I hope ultimately that I think they come from God, but it would be easy -- it is easy -- to confuse the gift with the giver. Safety, security, provision -- all comes from God, but the way he has given it to me is largely by giving me skills that I exchange in the marketplace for money... which we have saved and invested over the years. To make sure that I'm not confusing the gift and the giver, I tithe. Actually we give more than 10% of our gross income away -- that's the ticket to breaking the power of money.

How about meaning? How do I know that my life has meaning? I hope I think that it all comes from God, but I think of two things when I think of meaning. One is the set of opportunities and abilities God has given me to encourage people, usually men, to walk more closely with him. The other is less concrete -- it's the knowledge, the faith if you will, in God's promises.

And how can I tell if I'm elevating those over God himself? Well, when something happens that interferes with a small group meeting, how do I react? Of course I'm disappointed, but unduly so? Do I believe God is in control of these? If a meeting doesn't go well, if I say something wrong or stooopid, do I castigate myself for blowing it, or do I confess and trust that God has forgiven, and that he can use me as he will?

May the Lord help us to trust him, to walk humbly with him, and never to confuse him with his creation or his gifts.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Love your enemies? Be kind to the ungrateful and the wicked?

Today's reading from the New Testament has one of those impossible assignments from Jesus:
35But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
Luke 6.35-36
I find these things, well... difficult. What does he mean by that, "Love your enemies"? Does he really mean what he says?

I read an account of what this might look like, in Ingermanson's novel Premonition, which depicts the execution of James, the Lord's brother, by the evil priests. He somehow manages to call out a blessing on the house of the evil head priest -- actually loving his enemy.

The effects? Well, the priest is temporarily disoriented, then he returns to evildoing. He was given an opportunity to change, but he didn't take it.

James, on the other hand, has an overwhelming sense of power and joy; he goes to his death rejoicing.

Or in the film End of the Spear, where missionaries are speared to death by misunderstanding Waodani tribesmen; they do not use their firearms to retaliate, but willingly die.

What kind of changes would have to happen in me to be able to do that? I have to believe it's possible, with help from the Holy Spirit, to actually obey that command. (I do not think that in the world to come, the Lord Jesus will say he was "just kidding with that ‘love your enemies’ stuff".) If someone like Osama bin Ladin or Saddam or that madman in North Korea were about to kill my family or me, would I have it in me to pronounce a blessing on him?

Well, I don't have it now, but I don't need it now. If it happens, I pray that I'll have it in me at that time. Because when we do see the Lord face to face, I want to hear that “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Friday, March 23, 2007

Generous living

Today's reading from the Proverbs is all about this:
24One man gives freely, yet gains even more;
another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty.
25A generous man will prosper;
he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed.
26People curse the man who hoards grain,
but blessing crowns him who is willing to sell.
Proverbs 11.24-26
I heard an odd story about a couple who took in a foster child. They discovered after a while that the boy was hiding food all over his room -- in the dresser, under the bed, etc.; it took them a while to figure out what was going on, and why, and quite a while longer before it stopped.

This boy had lived out on the street for some time, and as one might imagine, did not always have enough food (or anything else for that matter). So whenever he had a little extra, which was pretty much every day in this middle-class home, he stashed some away against what we'd call a "rainy day." He recognized that his foster parents gave him everything he needed, but it took some time before he felt sure in his heart that they were going to keep on doing so. Only then did he stop stashing food away in corners.

When I act and feel like a miser, how am I any different from this little boy? I'm acting as though I don't trust my heavenly father to provide my needs, as if he would bring me all this way to drop me off a cliff or something. I'm hiding stuff away that God wants me to share.

And by the way, it's not just money; it's commodities, possessions, time, including the willingness to listen and empathize.

For me, the struggle involves the feeling of scarcity. How much money is enough? How much time? "Just a little bit more," right? When my heart is where the Lord wants it to be, then I think about the hope that he's called me to, the riches of the glorious inheritance he has prepared for me, I'm filled with the knowledge of God and my heart is overflowing with thankfulness. With that frame of mind and heart, I'm aware of the riches I have in Christ and generosity flows out of me.

How do I get to be more like that more of the time? Well, I'm not sure, but I'll tell you what I've tried. I don't know that this practice has made me more generous, but I suspect that neglecting it would have made me more of a miser. So here it is: I think about people who have less than I do, especially people that I can identify with. If I think of someone whose wife or child has some condition requiring expensive treatment, whose medical coverage doesn't -- or doesn't quite cover enough of the cost, the guy doesn't have to be irresponsible or a spendthrift to end up bankrupt and homeless. And I think about the many many things I have to be thankful for.

Basically, in other words, I think about what I've received and where it came from. All that helps me to be more thankful and to feel fortunate (rather than virtuous or prudent or some such). Which helps me to be a little less of a miser.

I hope it keeps working.

posted 3/24

Thursday, March 22, 2007

the desire of the righteous

Some decades ago, when I was still single, I memorized this verse because I hoped it would be true in my case:
The desire of the righteous ends only in good
but the hope of the wicked only in wrath.
Proverbs 11.23
So what about this? Is it true? Was it true for me, under the self-serving assumption that my desires were those of the righteous?

Well, yes and no. It wasn't true in the sense of "...and they lived happily ever after"; that's just fantasy (The Wedding by Nicholas Sparks belongs on the "Fantasy and Science Fiction" shelf by my reckoning). But if I consider the goodness I've received, the proportion of that goodness outstrips the proportion of goodness within me.
If I try to count my blessings, the things I have to be thankful for, it's easy to lose count. If I think about things I wish were different in my life, I don't often list them, and when I do, it's not very long. Conversely, I can find weaknesses in myself -- that I were more diligent, more disciplined, that I had more self-control, compassion; more love, joy, peace, patience, kindness and so on -- but when I think of my character strengths (which I don't very often) the list is not long.
And even the difficult things, the issues we've faced (and every real marriage has issues), those difficulties are helping us to grow in patience and compassion. So, as people say these days, "it's all good."

Even if I'm not.

posted 3/23

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

He who hesitates

In today's New Testament reading, Jesus uses Simon's boat as a portable lectern as he addresses the crowd for a while. Then he gives Simon a fishing lesson.
4When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, "Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch." 5Simon answered, "Master, we've worked hard all night and haven't caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets." 6When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break.
Luke 5.4-6
What a great example! Simon is truthful; he tells Jesus his honest reaction. He hesitates. And then he decides to obey. Others have pointed out that Simon wanted everybody to know that going into the deep water wasn't his idea; it was the idea of that carpenter/Rabbi. Maybe he was just doing the 1st century version of CYA, but I still have to admire the guy.

How many of us, when we get an impression that maybe we're supposed to do something -- something to promote justice or to help the poor or otherwise advance the gospel -- how many of us reject the idea out of hand as impractical or unworkable? We don't even consider whether it might be from the Lord, because we don't want it to be.

Simon was not like that. He heard, he didn't like it, he grumbled a bit, but then he obeyed.

And Jesus the carpenter showed Simon the fisherman something about fishing.

What happened next? When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ feet, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” (Luke 5:8).

Looking at that, I wondered if Simon really wanted Jesus to go away. I think Simon felt ashamed that he had ever doubted the Lord.

What a great guy he was! If I ever grow up, I want to be like him. Straightforward, sincere, sometimes frightened but willing to repent, sometimes wrong but never quiet or in doubt. But full of love for the Lord Jesus Christ, full of energy, always engaged.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007


Today's reading from the New Testament shows Jesus confronted by two enemies. The first is the devil, who came to him in the desert, telling him to turn stones into bread;
Jesus answered, "It is written: 'Man does not live on bread alone.'"
Luke 4:4
(Oddly enough, Matthew 4:3-4 say nearly the same thing as Luke 4:3-4.) Three times the devil tries to derail Jesus, and three times Jesus replies by quoting the Scriptures. Then the devil leaves.

A little further down, Jesus enters the synagogue, and reads something from the Scriptures and makes a few comments. Note what happens next.
28All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. 29They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him down the cliff. 30But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.
Luke 4.28-30
By the way, in the first confrontation, the devil attacks first, and Jesus responds with Scripture; in the second one, Jesus reads and comments upon the Scripture, and the people respond by attacking him.

Anyway, I don't think this passage proves it necessarily, but I've heard it said that "You are indestructible until you've accomplished God's will for you." Which I guess makes sense, if we believe God is fully in control of the world. It also explains the boldness I see in some people, who believe God has called them to minister in conditions that others find too dangerous; they are emboldened by their sense of mission.

And I think of some mission pioneers, who went into the mission field, taking their possessions in a pine box, about 1' by 2' by 6', or maybe a little longer for the taller missionaries. They would go out, these young men and women, each with their own box. And a few years later, their lifeless body would be shipped home in that same box. But each one, before they died, was confident that they had done God's will for their lives; they were indestructible until that point.

And so are we. Most of us aren't that bold -- I'm certainly not. But perhaps there is a little boldness that the Lord would like to give us. What might it be for you or for me today? We really are indestructible, you know -- until our time.

What was that temptation about, anyway?

After reading the passage to the younger teen tonight, I remembered a sermon we heard about this when we were living in Tokyo and attending Musashino Chapel Center. So I thought I'd tell you about it.

The temptations were three: tell the stone to become bread (or "stones" in Matthew's account); throw yourself down from the temple in a spectacular display that will have people talking for weeks; worship me and I'll give you power over all the kingdoms of the earth.

Those things -- bread (nothing wrong with bread), fame (or glory), and authority -- those all were things Jesus was going to get anyway. What the devil's temptation consisted of was basically short-cuts. Use your power and ability, the things you know how to do, doing things the way you feel comfortable doing them -- do that rather than relying upon God, and what will happen?

Nothing good; you won't get anything you weren't going to get anyway, and the wrong approach will bring disappointment and grief. It's not just that "the slow way is the safe way" (Frank Herbert, Dune), but that God's way is better than going against his way.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Dialectical Biblical Interpretation?

One of the most useful principles I know for understanding and applying the Bible is to ask: "If this is the truth, what is the lie?" From thinking about the lie, we can see more things about the truth. This might sound vaguely like Hegel (or Marx?), but it came in handy as I looked at today's reading from the Psalms:
My soul finds rest in God alone;
my salvation comes from him.
Psalm 62.1
If that's the truth -- that rest for my soul comes only in God, then what's the lie? That rest for my soul (or "salvation") can come from anywhere else.

We believe this kind of thing all the time, you and I. At least a part of us believes it. "I'll be glad when..." and fill in the blank. When I've made $X, when I've had my big break, when I'm famous, when I've met somebody, whatever. Haven't we all thought something like that, at least for a while (before we came to our senses)? It is, of course, a crock. Why are so many celebrities in rehab programs? Why did Howard Hughes meet such an ignoble end? Why are there so many divorces?

Because fortune, achievement, fame, companions aren't powerful enough, or benevolent enough, to bring significance, satisfaction (OK, salvation). But in contrast, if we look down a few lines, we see this:
11One thing God has spoken,
two things have I heard:
that you, O God, are strong,
12and that you, O Lord, are loving.
from Psalm 62.11-12
Well, I think the little dialectic "trick" worked; without it, I don't think it would have occurred to me how to tie verses 11-12 with verse 1.

In any case, whenever I'm tempted to think, "I'll be happy when..." (or "My life will be complete when..." or some variation) -- when I catch myself thinking those kinds of things, this psalm is a good reminder to wake up and come back to reality. Because none of those things are strong and loving enough; they aren't powerful and good enough -- to bring peace and hope. But the good news is that God is, and he will, and he's available when we call on him.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

What Important Things Happened Today?

Today's New Testament reading, from Luke 3, makes me think about the first Christian conference I ever attended. Here's the passage:
1In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar--when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene-- 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert.
Luke 3:1-2
The speaker started off his message (I think it was the first one of the conference) by commenting on the news, or rather the lack thereof. He hadn't seen the Huntley-Brinkley report or Cronkite's summary of the day's events; he hadn't picked up the New York Times. "But I can guarantee you this," he said. "Nowhere did they say anything about a few hundred men and women gathered at Redwood Christian Park."

In the 1st century A.D., the stuff on the evening news wasn't the stuff God thought important. Why does Luke bother to name Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, and all the rest here? They're only to tell us when the Important Event happened. What important event? That the word of God came to an obscure prophet in an unnamed place in the desert.

Thinking back on that conference, in the last quarter of the 20th century, I don't recall what the Important People were doing. But I'm going to guess that when those dates are discussed in heaven, at least some of the significant events in the kingdom of God are going to turn out to be some decisions made by unknown people at an obscure campground in the hills.

One thing that happened to me as a result of that conference was that I began to wish that I could make connections between, say, the revelation of Jesus's power on one hand, and Peter's sermons on the other. That as I read the Bible, I could see beyond the events and the sentences that were presented there -- that God would give me insights about what he was trying to say, and how my life should change as a result. Looking back, I can honestly say that that conference changed my life.

And what Important Events happened today? Most of what we see on the news won't be remembered a few years from now. But if God speaks to you or to me in a new way today -- or if we hear him in a new way; if his spirit stirs in us a new desire; if by our prayers, someone takes the next step closer to God; if any of those things happen, that will be remembered in heaven, and who was president or governor will be mentioned, if they're mentioned at all, only so that people will know when the Important Event happened.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Personal growth

Some years, ah, some decades ago, I was advised to set goals for personal growth in four areas, based on Luke 2:52, which appears in today's New Testament reading:
And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and with man.
The four areas were: intellectual (or something like that), physical, spiritual, social. These weren't all literally growth goals (how much weight do you plan to gain? for example), but goals/desires for my life in these areas.

As I think back on those goals, or those desires, it seems to me that I have much to be thankful for. Intellectually? I now regularly read and think about subjects that I formerly had no interest in. Physically? I don't do as much exercise as some experts say we should, but then I only have 24 hours in a day, and I am in reasonable shape. On the spiritual front, the Lord has protected me from going totally off the rails, although I don't think I'm as much of a Bible scholar, or an evangelist, as I had once hoped I'd become. And the most important aspect of my social life, the desire for a wife and children, has been granted beyond my expectations or any reasonable hope.

But let's take another look at the verse. I can see how Jesus could grow physically and in favor with man, but wisdom? Didn't he already know everything? And how about that "favor with God" part -- how could Jesus have had less favor with God earlier (in order to grow in favor with God over time)?

Well, I don't have a completely satisfactory answer, but I think I've heard something along these lines. In the process of living life, of having experiences, something happens to us humans besides what we "learn" from them. You've heard so-and-so described as a "seasoned" {therapist, counselor, pastor, executive, writer, _______}. It doesn't just mean that they're smart, or wise, or excellent; it says something else. What? I'm not sure exactly.

Let me take another run at this. When Jesus was twelve years old, how long had he been walking, in the flesh? A little under twelve years, right? So how long had he been walking in the flesh with God? Something under twelve years. Now, at age thirty, how long had he been walking in the flesh with God? Quite a bit longer. If someone's been walking with you for years and years, for decades, there's something that develops, there's something to the relationship that wasn't there earlier. For us, we learn things we didn't know before, but God knows the end from the beginning. And yet, I think there's something besides "just the facts" that we learn -- there's something else, something that requires longevity in a relationship. Because although God is unlike us in his omniscience and omnipotence and omnipresence and all that kind of thing, he is like us (or rather we are like him) in that we feel affection for others, as God does; we get exasperated (more quickly than he does). We are like him in our emotional lives.

And whatever it is besides "just the facts" that we get from the longevity of a relationship, I think it's a sort of shadow of what God gets from long-lasting relationships.

So that's the "favor with God" part. As far as how Jesus could grow in wisdom, I don't quite get that. But I think there's something about the experience of dealing with the limitations of the flesh -- an experience he had not had before coming to earth. And as he acquired more experience, I think there is something that he gained from those years of experience, that there's some way he grew in wisdom over those decades.

And what are my goals for the next few decades? Wisdom, stature (or in my case maybe it should be "cardio-vascular health"), favor with God, favor with man? What are yours?

These may be worth a discussion of some kind, maybe with a small group? Or at least some thought. Where did I come from, how far have I come, where is God taking me?

Friday, March 16, 2007

Bias and bias...

Today's new Testament reading is the nativity story, recited annually on millions of American TV sets in A Charlie Brown Christmas by the "Linus van Pelt" character:
1In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2(This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3And everyone went to his own town to register. 4So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.
Luke 2.1-4
Schulz's character recited it out of the old King James version, which reads "...that all the world should be taxed," which likely was the purpose of the census.

Now I have to say something about anti-Christian bias in the academy here. For many years, students were told that no census was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. They may have been told that Quirinius wasn't governor at the time of Christ's birth (I'm not too sure about that one).

On what basis did they say that? Well, they were aware that Quirinius was governor during a certain period, and they had not found any sign of a census during that period. Do you see the flaws? There are two of them:
  • I haven't found a sign of it, therefore it didn't happen."
    Which is wrong because the next dig might find it!
  • I know of one period when Quirinius was governor, and he could not have been governor any other time.
    I may be mistaken, but I believe that governors have served non-consecutive terms in these United States in the 20th century A.D.; why not in Syria in the 1st century B.C.?
You've probably guessed it by now: Quirinius was governor when Jesus was born, in a non-consecutive term; and records of a census were found during that term.

All this was old news in 1960, yet in the late 1970s, Stanford students were told that Luke was wrong because there was no census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria...

An anti-Christian bias? An anti-Biblical bias?

Well, God is biased too. A few lines down, we read:
8And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.
This was good news for all the people -- not good news for some people that's bad news for other people (good news for Toyota being bad news for GM, for example). So that's not where the bias is.

Who's receiving the message? That's where the bias is! God gives this great news to shepherds. These are people whose testimony was not accepted in a court of law. These are people who don't normally live near town because the townspeople can't stand the smell.

(By the way, I once heard that Jesus was probably born in the spring, near the time of Passover, when the demand for lambs was very high in town -- this would be the only time, so I was told, that shepherds would be nearby.)

Witnesses to the birth of Christ the Lord -- domestic animals; and people whose testimony wasn't admissible in a court of law. Come to think of it, who were the first to know that Jesus had risen from the dead? Another set of people whose testimony wasn't admissible in a court of law -- women.

Bias indeed!

In which direction do my biases tend?

posted 3/17

Thursday, March 15, 2007

His Name is John

Zechariah the priest had been struck dumb for some nine months because he didn't believe the angel. Today's New Testament reading takes place after his son is born.
59On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, 60but his mother spoke up and said, "No! He is to be called John."

61They said to her, "There is no one among your relatives who has that name." 62Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. 63He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone's astonishment he wrote, "His name is John."
Luke 1.59-62
Why is this conversation recorded? Elizabeth telling everyone the name, Zechariah writing it down, everybody else being shocked -- what's that all about? Here are a few things that strike me as unusual.
  • "They" didn't believe Elizabeth -- why?
  • They made signs to Zechariah; was he deaf, too? And if he were, why would they make signs, rather than writing something? What was the literacy rate I wonder?
  • Someone pointed out to me once that this suggests Elizabeth could read and write. Whatever the literacy rate was for the population in general, I guess it was lower for women.
  • Nobody else knew that Elizabeth could read?
Apparently Zech and Liz were more educated (i.e., able to read and write) than the "they" being described here.

Here's what I think about this: I think Zech and Liz were ahead of their time. It seems to me that Zech honored Liz; they had a level of communication, maybe intimacy, beyond the usual. I mean, she could read his writing, he obviously talked her into bed (without using his voice). But seriously, the bottom line is that she was an honored person in his life; she knew things that nobody knew she knew.

I think this is a great example to follow. If the two are to become "one flesh," then it's an honor for my spouse to know things nobody else knows -- or knows that she knows. Likewise it's an honor when my spouse tells me things that nobody else knows -- or knows I know. So I guess what I take from this is, it's a good thing to give and receive honor, back and forth, with my wife. May we pursue this and guard it against intruders.

written 3/15, posted 3/17

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Balaam and the Bad Rap

In today's Old Testament reading, from Numbers 22, the Israelites traveled through the desert and came near to the territory of Moab. The Moabite king, Balak, sent for Balaam to put a curse on the Israelite people, because they were too numerous for him to defeat. Balaam has the messengers spend the night, and during the night he tells God what's up with the visitors.
12But God said to Balaam, "Do not go with them. You must not put a curse on those people, because they are blessed."
Numbers 22:12
Balaam has his instructions. What does he do with them?
13The next morning Balaam got up and said to Balak's princes, "Go back to your own country, for the Lord has refused to let me go with you."
Numbers 22:12
Balak sends more messengers, more distinguished and more numerous than the first, and he promises a handsome reward.
18But Balaam answered them, "Even if Balak gave me his palace filled with silver and gold, I could not do anything great or small to go beyond the command of the Lord my God.
Numbers 22:18
Here is a guy who knew where he stood. And as such he provides us with an example to follow.

So let's stop right there for a moment. Are you thinking about doing something rather shabby, something you know you shouldn't? Cheating on your expense report, on your spouse, or something like that? There's a whole pile of trouble you and I can avoid by just determining, like Balaam did (or said he did) not to go beyond what the Lord your God permits.

At this point, we could continue reading and try to figure out where Balaam got into trouble (because get into trouble he did), but I'm not going to do that, basically because I'd be making stuff up. The good news for us, though, is that whatever trouble we do get into, there is grace and mercy available for us.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Two mysteries solved, then unsolved (or dissolved?)

I have been thinking recently about two great mysteries. I thought I had both solved, but I'm probably wrong.

The first great mystery

What English plural noun shares no letters with its singular form(s)?

It's a noun, so it's not the pronoun "ye" (singular: "thou") or "you" (singular: "thee") or "your" (singular: "thine").

What I came up with was "pants" (singular: "leg," as in "one leg of these pants was hemmed, but the other wasn't" or "put on their pants one leg at a time").

But the Official Answer (from was: "kine" which basically means "cattle." The singular would be "cow" or maybe "bull". I prefer the latter, but neither shares any letter with "kine".

I still think "pants" was a better answer.

The second great mystery...

I mentioned dualism the other day. Actually I didn't mention it, but I alluded to it. The topic was what Jeff Schwartz (in The Mind and the Brain) calls "don't-have-a-clue materialism", the view that says that "mind" is purely physical, but offers no explanation of how consciousness arises from electrochemical interactions. By whatever means it arises, arise it must via physical means -- so goes the argument -- because these guys hate the idea that two worlds (the physical and non-physical) could somehow interact. So this second mystery is, succinctly, "How can something non-material, the ‘thought’ world, affect something material? And vice versa?"

Materialists, who claim to be the one word of truth in science, trot out this pair of questions in order to ridicule those of us who believe that things like consciousness and decision-making and love and commitment are real if not physical. And I do believe that, by the way: Love and loyalty and promises are real; they are not just illusions conjured up by electrochemical reactions.

So what is my answer to this second mystery? Well, professional philosophers like the Churchlands (who seem to have lost their philosophical moorings IMO) probably have a sophisticated answer to this, but the answer is as simple and as mind-boggling as the greatest invention in history: the written word.

Think of it: an idea, something like "God created the heavens and the earth, and created humans to be co-regents of the earth," or "The same law will apply both to you and to the alien living among you," or "eπi+1=0" (sorry, I just had to throw that one in). Anyway, an idea (which is surely not material; what is its mass?) can be encoded into something physical -- marks on stone or paper. That piece of stone or paper (or a magnetic core, or disk drive or CD-ROM) can carry this abstract idea into the future or across the oceans -- or for that matter transmitted via wire or radio or fiber, as email or fax or...

And this idea can set a subcontinent ablaze, like the Danish cartoon suggesting that followers of Muhammad are violent. Some months after being published, it was taken to some Islamic countries, where Muhammad's followers took offense, staged riots, set buildings on fire, and in so doing proved their accuser correct.

People may object that the idea is communicated to its recipient by purely physical means (something visible or audible, right?) and hence it's still physical affecting physical. But that's no answer unless they can answer the questions Hofstadter asks in his 1970s work, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. Though that book is some 30 years old, the answers are still elusive. Gee, I guess we could have said that about AI theorists....

Anyway, what is it about "All men are created equal" that remains the same when translated from text to speech, from English to French or Japanese, or whatever? Nothing material, surely!

And how about the concept of "truth"? -- that's not physical either. And as Lewis asked over six decades ago, if thought is just the irrelevant by-product of electrochemical interactions, why on earth is it trustworthy?

So, as an idea (and its truth or falsity) can come into the physical world by text or speech (in any language), and from the physical world into the mind of a living soul by reading or hearing. Since we do that every day, why is it so hard to imagine that consciousness (not to mention love, fidelity, faithfulness, loyalty, promises and so on) are real albeit not physical?

Perils of Unbelief

Today's readings, in both Old and New Testament, describe two cases where God said, but the hearer didn't listen. In each case, the hearer was from the tribe of Levi; in each case, the hearer arguably should have known better. From the Old Testament, in the book of Numbers, the Israelites ran out of water and complained to Moses and Aaron. Then...
6Moses and Aaron went from the assembly to the entrance to the Tent of Meeting and fell facedown, and the glory of the Lord appeared to them. 7The Lord said to Moses, 8"Take the staff, and you and your brother Aaron gather the assembly together. Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water. You will bring water out of the rock for the community so they and their livestock can drink."
Numbers 20:6-8
They have their instructions. Not entirely clear exactly what they were supposed to say to the rock, but "Speak" sounds pretty clear. What did they do?
9So Moses took the staff from the Lord's presence, just as he commanded him. 10He and Aaron gathered the assembly together in front of the rock and Moses said to them, "Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?" 11Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank.
Numbers 20:9-11
Given the instructions, why did Moses hit the rock instead? Hearing problem perhaps? Well, they had hit a rock before, back in Exodus 17, and it worked. H'm. God wasn't too happy with them, though, because they did what they thought would work; they didn't believe and obey what he said:
12But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, "Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them."
Numbers 20:12
Pretty harsh. This gives me the impression that God considers faith and obedience a lot more important than expedience.

Our New Testament hearer is Zechariah. He was a priest, and his division was on duty at the temple. He was chosen by lot to offer incense, and while he was inside, an angel appeared!
12When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13But the angel said to him: "Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John.
Luke 1:12-13
The angel gives him some more info about what the son will be like, and during this time I guess Zechariah became less afraid and more incredulous, because
18Zechariah asked the angel, "How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years."

19The angel answered, "I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. 20And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time."
Luke 1:18-20
That didn't work so well for Zechariah, either. Why didn't he believe the angel?

Here's what I think. I think old Zechariah and his wife had prayed for many years for a child, and the lack of children was a matter of shame to them, a sign of being out of favor with the Lord. I suppose that maybe, just maybe, old Zechariah was tired of being disappointed and decided that he didn't want to be disappointed again. I can relate to that.

Both Moses and Zechariah felt, I think, that their lives were out of control. Both men had asked God and been refused. Like me, they were not always happy with what God had given them. Like me, they were each given an opportunity to surrender part of their lives to the Lord one more time. And like me, they sometimes blew it.

Both men faced some consequences, but they also received blessings after their failure to believe.

May gratitude overcome disappointment in our lives. May we focus on God's blessings and not obsess about the disappointments. And when the Lord comes to us with another opportunity to trust him, to take a step of faith, to risk disappointment yet again... may we have courage to be open to what he has for us.
For we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved
(from somewhere in the Bible)

Monday, March 12, 2007

Wanted: Failures

Toward the end of Mark's gospel, we see that just about everyone close to Jesus failed in some way or another. Judas betrayed him. Peter denied knowing him. The other ten fled.

The Romans crucified Jesus, and Joseph of Arimathea put the body into a tomb before the Sabbath started.
1When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus' body. 2Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb 3and they asked each other, "Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?"
Mark 16.1-3
This is a bit of a quibble, and I can't really blame them, as they were surely distraught about the death of their teacher and friend, but they went off to the tomb without a clue how they were going to get in. This was a huge stone, not a sliding door. F.F. Bruce even wrote a book about it.

You may recall that the stone had already been moved. An angel was there; he told them that Jesus had risen, and he gave them some instructions:
7But go, tell his disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.' " 8Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
Mark 16:7-8
So, they don't follow the instructions either.

Why does Mark tell us this, and what does it, or should it, mean to us? Here's what I think. It's not just that some people fail, but everyone fails at one time or another. Everyone who wants to be close to Jesus and to be useful to him has to goof up. That's a strange-sounding sort of requirement but it reminds me of two things:
  • Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom...
    (Jesus said that.) The kingdom is only for those who know that they're truly bankrupt.
    It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners...
    Jesus said that, too.
  • I don't remember which management book I read this in -- Drucker's Effective Executive maybe? -- but there are some places that won't take a senior executive who hasn't had a significant failure. Maybe it was Senge's Fifth Discipline?
In other words, there are some places where you can't be used unless you've failed, or you know your failure. The Kingdom of Heaven is one such place. Which is good news for those of us who aren't perfect.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Don't insult Him!

Note: I added an update to Friday's post and a correction to Tuesday's.

Some of the Israelites rebel against Moses, and God is angry with them.
20The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, 21"Separate yourselves from this assembly so I can put an end to them at once."
Numbers 16:20-21
What happens afterward is not pretty, but what I noticed was their response:
22But Moses and Aaron fell facedown and cried out, "O God, God of the spirits of all mankind, will you be angry with the entire assembly when only one man sins?"
Numbers 16:22
I think this has got to be part of their training -- God training Moses and Aaron I mean. They have many years of leadership ahead of them, and something they really need is patience. I suspect that God was giving voice to some of the exasperation that Moses -- and maybe Aaron too at this point -- felt toward these exasperating people. And by doing that, I suppose he awakened their compassion, another leadership essential.

Something else I noticed from this passage -- one might think that these guys (Korah and his followers I mean) were only insulting Moses and Aaron, but the Lord is apparently pretty upset with them, because "...these men have treated the Lord with contempt." (Numbers 16:30, emphasis added). when God puts someone in a leadership role, he seems to take it pretty seriously. That's something to remember when I'm tempted to criticize a pastor or other church leader.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

What would you have done?

When Jesus was arrested by the priests and their thugs, Peter followed at a distance.
66While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came by. 67When she saw Peter warming himself, she looked closely at him."You also were with that Nazarene, Jesus," she said. 68But he denied it. "I don't know or understand what you're talking about," he said, and went out into the entryway.
Mark 14.66-68
Do you ever wonder what you would have done in that circumstance? I suppose some of us think we wouldn't have denied knowing Jesus, but I don't think most of us can imagine the pressure and sense of danger, or what was going through Peter at this point.

In a way, one could say Peter didn't know the man being beaten and abused by the priests and soldiers; he knew a powerful rabbi, who he thought would bring back the kingdom of God and Israel's glory.

But that's quibbling. He said he didn't know what the girl was talking about.

Was that awful? Yes, it was very bad.

Would I have done any different? I might not have even made it to the priest's courtyard.

But the important thing is this: No matter how bad Peter's failure was, as we know from other Scriptures, he was restored to fellowship and became an important leader in the church.

And that's the good news I take from this passage -- multiple failures don't disqualify one from serving the Lord. So it is with my failures -- or yours; because of God's great love for us, shown on the cross, we can have fellowship with him; more than that, he can and will use us to achieve his ends on the earth.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Just an hour

Today's New Testament reading is from Mark 14, from the Last Supper to the arrest in Gethsemane. You may recall that Jesus takes Peter, James and John aside with him and prays, in great distress.
37Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. "Simon," he said to Peter, "are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour? 38Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak."
Mark 14.37-38
Jesus makes it sound easy, doesn't he? "Couldn't you stay awake for an hour?"

Sure, but they've had the Passover meal, including what I assume to be a nontrivial amount of wine. Big meal with wine, late at night... I think it would be hard to stay awake. I find it hard enough to stay focused praying for an hour without something written in front of me; these guys were watching, maybe not even praying.

So, sitting still, staying awake, praying or meditating -- it's not just sleep-deprived 21st-century man that finds this difficult. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.

Philip Yancey says so, too:
When I hear of people who spend an hour a day meditating, I wonder how they do it. I strain to spend fifteen minutes, and anything longer tends to degenerate into distraction and lapses of concentration.
Philip Yancey
Prayer — Does it Make any Difference?
(Zondervan, 2006), p.158
How do we address this weakness of the flesh? I guess it's with training, and the Apostle Paul will have something to say about that later.

(added Yancey's quote 3/11)

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Kill me now, please

Starfleet Admiral James T. Kirk confronts a Klingon warrior at gunpoint in the film Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. "Help us or die," he orders.

The Klingon straightens his shoulders. "I do not deserve to live," he says.

Kirk then orders him sent to the brig, and the Klingon protests. "Wait! You said you would kill me." Today's Old Testament reading, from the book of Numbers, shows Moses so vexed by the people's constant wailing that he asks God to kill him.
He asked the Lord, "Why have you brought this trouble on your servant? What have I done to displease you that you put the burden of all these people on me? Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? .... I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me. If this is how you are going to treat me, put me to death right now — if I have found favor in your eyes — and do not let me face my own ruin."
Numbers 11.11-12,14-15
Now that's vexation. Kill me now, he says.

What a trial that must have been for Moses! Ordered by God to do the impossible, he tried to decline, but God would have none of that. So now he's got however many hundreds of thousands of people in the desert, and they're all complaining because they have no onions and garlic and leeks. A mission from God; that's worth getting vexed over.

This makes me wonder: What vexes me? The fear of catastrophic failure trying to fulfill a mission from God? I think of these guys who jumped out skyscraper windows because of the stock market, and I guess they felt that way -- failing in their mission, facing their ruin.

But would any failure be worth enough vexation to die over?

posted 3/9

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Call on me

I'm going through Patrick Morley's The Man in the Mirror with some friends. I don't necessarily agree with everything he says, but it's a great survey of issues that men face: purpose, priorities, relationships, etc. At one point I seem to remember his advising (I couldn't find it just now though) against putting oneself in a risky position so that God would "have to" bail you out.

In other words, don't take useless risks. This way of thinking appeals to me. I mean, to me risk is just a four-letter word.

But as a counterpoint to that, we were sitting in church some months back, and heard someone describe her efforts to establish a transition home for kids turning 18 and rotating out of foster care, or something like this. She had felt God leading her in this direction and ended up in a situation, where, well, God "had to" bail her out. (Which he did, by moving some generous donor -- an individual or a foundation -- to give a huge gift, so the ministry could stay afloat and its founder would herself remain solvent.) This is not the sort of risk I would take on myself, but I had to admire this woman's guts.

Today's reading from the psalms includes this verse:
...and call upon me in the day of trouble.
I shall rescue you
and you will honor me.
from Psalm 50.15
This doesn't tell us to live a life of folly and imprudent risk, but it provides a counterpoint for people like me, who tend to think no risk too worthy to avoid. It reminds me that life is not a game where the object is to avoid problems and arrive safely at... the day I die.

Rather, it's to be passionately engaged with the Lord, to know and follow him every day. And sometimes I guess that means to be willing to grow, which means to change. And it may mean not trying quite so hard to avoid the "day of trouble", which will come to each one of us, inevitably, anyway.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The prospect of the righteous

We met "Sonia" a few years ago at a youth camp for children of refugees, where we were serving together. Besides helping refugee kids, Sonia raises money for charity, and recently has taken on guardianship of a 7-year-old girl. This child had never been to school before moving in with Sonia, and had not learned the alphabet or the other things that first-grade kids usually learn in this country. Instead she spent hours locked up in the apartment while her mother threw her life away on drugs and bad men.

I was thinking about Sonia when I read this morning's selection from Proverbs:
The prospect of the righteous is joy,
but the hopes of the wicked come to nothing.
Proverbs 10.28
Sonia was recently diagnosed with cancer; she may not live to see 50.

This does not seem fair to me: one woman throws her life away, another has it taken from her. Yet "the prospect of the righteous is joy"?

On one hand, I don't get it. On the other hand, when I think about the rotten mother -- sorry, but she is a rotten mother -- who locked her kid up and did drugs and had sex with bad men, surely this bad mother's hopes will come to nothing unless something changes.

And Sonia's prospect of joy? Any joy will be tempered with the knowledge of a looming catastrophe, because although there are palliatives, there is no cure. Yeah, I know that we're all dying, and any of us could die any minute (all it takes is one stray truck), but Sonia has a weight that most of us don't have to carry.

May Sonia find joy in the coming days. May the rotten mother come to herself and not discard the rest of her life. And may you and I rejoice in every blessing. Sometimes we have to look for it, but the prospect of the righteous truly is joy.

(minor corrections 3/11)

Monday, March 05, 2007

I don't understand that so I'll ridicule it

There's a tradition, going back some centuries, which says that mind is not matter. The brain is matter but the mind (or the psyche) is not. Recently, people like Pinker and the Churchlands (recently profiled in the New Yorker) have objected vehemently to this, insisting that the mind is nothing more than chemical reactions in the brain. They don't like the idea that something without a material component (a soul or a nonphysical "mind" or something) could have effects on the physical world, and so they say that whatever isn't matter can't exist. Lewis pointed out the folly of this over a half century ago:
If thought is the undesigned and irrelevant product of cerebral motions (or, we would say today, electro-chemical reactions between neurons), what reason have we to trust it?
Evil and God,
from The Spectator
vol. CLXVI (7 February 1941),
reprinted in God in the Dock
(Eerdmans, 1970), p.21
Materialistic psychologists and philosophers are not, of course, making a brand new error. They are making the same error committed by the Sadducees in Mark 12. Today's New Testament reading tells of an encounter Jesus had with them. They came to him "with a question," Mark tells us:
19"Teacher," they said, "Moses wrote for us that if a man's brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and have children for his brother. 20Now there were seven brothers. The first one married and died without leaving any children. 21The second one married the widow, but he also died, leaving no child. It was the same with the third.... 23At the resurrection, whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?"
from Mark 12.19-23
Now did the Sadducees start off hating the idea of a resurrection, and go looking for paradoxes? Or did they wonder about some of these things and end up rejecting the idea of a resurrection afterwards?

I'll tell you: I don't know. But they were mistaken, as Jesus explains:
24Jesus replied, "Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God? 25When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. 26Now about the dead rising — have you not read in the book of Moses, in the account of the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? 27He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!"
Perhaps I shouldn't enjoy this so much, but he really lets them have it here. He chides them for not knowing the Scriptures -- something I'm sure they prided themselves on. Then in particular, "have you not read...?" Ouch! Every Jewish boy reads that passage and probably recites it.

These Sadducees had read that but evidently had forgotten it, and forgotten the implication that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob must have still been alive at that time, because God wouldn't identify himself as the God of dead people. Hence there must be a resurrection.

The Sadducees didn't understand how the resurrection worked, so they rejected it and forgot (as Jesus pointed out) what they had read in the Bible. In a similar way, these psychologists and philosophers, and maybe some neuroscientists too, don't understand how a nonphysical mind could influence a physical world -- so they reject the idea. But none of them can answer Lewis's rhetorical question -- a question old enough to be drawing Social Security -- and thus make the same mistake as the Sadducees.

And what about me? Do I reject things just because I don't understand how they could be? May God help us to be open to the truth, even if we don't quite understand it all, or understand how something could be. May he protect us from the error of the Sadducees.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Give Caesar what's Caesar's

Today's New Testament reading has some people trying to trap Jesus in his words. They ask him whether it's OK to pay the hated tax or not. You see, if he says, "Yes, pay it," they'll cast him as a Roman collaborateur, but if he says, "Don't," then they'll have the Romans arrest him. He sees through their hypocricy, though, and asks them for a coin. (Someone has pointed out that even for this illustration he had to borrow a coin.)
16They brought the coin, and he asked them, "Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?"

"Caesar's," they replied.

17Then Jesus said to them, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's."

And they were amazed at him.
Mark 12.16-17
What does that mean? OK, this just came to me now: What is Caesar's? Taxes. Obedience to the law.

What's God's? Everything else? Of course, but in particular, what's that verse say? "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength." So my heart, soul, mind, and strength are God's, and I should give him that. H'm...

We had a friend over for dinner the other night, and he told us of his experience investing in stocks. Now not everyone is like this, but when he related his experience, I knew that I was! You buy some shares of stock XYZ at, say, $40, using an online broker. E*Trade, Ameritrade, one of those.

A few hours or a few minutes later, you check the price. Whoa! Up a whole point! You feel smart. Or it's down, and you feel dumb, or sad, or unlucky. The next day, if you haven't sold it already, you check it a few times (or a few dozen times) more. When it's up, you're happy; when it's down, you're sad. You think about it, you worry about it, OK, maybe you pray about it.

But part of your heart has gone into the market, into the price of that stock.

Some people can invest and forget it; we put some money into a few stocks and had the experience that our friend did. Last year we got out of that and turned over management to a financial advisor. Since it's now tax time, I looked over the data for "Schedule D" and you know what? We actually "made" a little money. One stock made $3000 and two others lost $1000 apiece, something like that. It was not worth the time and energy invested.

I'm glad we're out of it. So that's one distraction eliminated, or at least reduced. Not a sure cure to total devotion to God, but it removed a pot-hole in the road.

So we don't watch the market nearly so closely, and our hearts are at peace, less tied up in the financial pages, and, we hope, more fully His.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Be still

One of the things that is hard for me to do is to just sit still and meditate. I like to have something to read, a puzzle or problem to work on, or something to watch or listen to. Or something to write with. So here's something I need to read:
1God is our refuge and strength
A very present help in time of trouble.
2Therefore we will not fear,
Though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
10"Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth."
Psalm 46.1-2,10
I think there is a connection between God's command to "Be still and know that I..." and the psalmist's words that "we will not fear."

The temptation for me is to think I can do things to keep the world under control. This is apparently not a particularly new conceit; it's been around for at least a few thousand years.

Now it is true that we can do things to change the world, or the parts of the world under our influence. We can bring blessings to those around us. We can make life miserable for others. And we have seen a few times too many that high school kids can get access to firearms and end the lives of dozens of their classmates. So we can and do have an impact on the world, and much of the time that is how God chooses to bless the world -- that is, by using people like you and me in others' lives.

But the world isn't under our control -- at least not much of it is, and nothing that's ultimately meaningful. And for me to remember that, it's good to sit still once in a while. Not reading or writing or watching, not working on a puzzle or problem. Not sleeping. But listening and waiting. I think I'll go do that right now.

Pray for me?

Friday, March 02, 2007

Carrot and stick? Try 2 pots of gold and 5 sticks

There's more than one place in the Old Testament where God sets up conditions: If you listen and obey, I'll bless you like this, but if you refuse and rebel, these other things will happen instead. A carrot and a stick.

In this morning's reading, Leviticus 26 offers a variant on this in no fewer than seven clauses, or stanzas if you will:
  1. 3If you follow my decrees and are careful to obey my commands, 4I will send you rain in its season, and the ground will yield its crops and the trees of the field their fruit. ... (lots of other good stuff)
  2. 14But if you will not listen to me and carry out all these commands, 15and if you reject my decrees and abhor my laws and fail to carry out all my commands and so violate my covenant, 16then I will do this to you: I will bring upon you sudden terror, wasting diseases and fever that will destroy your sight and drain away your life. ... (other bad stuff)

  3. 18If after all this you will not listen to me, I will punish you for your sins seven times over. ... (more bad stuff)

  4. 21If you remain hostile toward me and refuse to listen to me, I will multiply your afflictions seven times over, as your sins deserve. ... (more bad stuff)

  5. 23If in spite of these things you do not accept my correction but continue to be hostile toward me, 24I myself will be hostile toward you and will afflict you for your sins seven times over. ... (more bad stuff)

  6. 27If in spite of this you still do not listen to me but continue to be hostile toward me, ... 33I will scatter you among the nations and will draw out my sword and pursue you. Your land will be laid waste, and your cities will lie in ruins. ... 39Those of you who are left will waste away in the lands of their enemies because of their sins; also because of their fathers' sins they will waste away.
  7. 40But if they will confess their sins and the sins of their fathers — their treachery against me and their hostility toward me, ... 42I will remember my covenant with Jacob and my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land.
Isn't that interesting? The first and the last (7th) clauses promise lots of good stuff, and clauses 2-6 talk about the bad things that will happen "if" they rebel, disobey, etc.

I put "if" in quotes because he clearly knows that they will, and at each stage he'll try to get their attention but they'll still refuse, and so on, until they are exiled. He tells them all this in advance, so they can avoid all the bad stuff.

I often think about the messy situation all over the world -- corruption in government, abuse of people's trust, exploitation, violence, poverty, oppression, and rampant disregard for the truth -- and I think, "If I were king..." Which it's a good thing I'm not, because I don't have mercy and patience like God has. I don't think I'd ever come up with the two pots of gold and the five sticks in between; I'd probably have the carrot, followed shortly by cataclysmic global thermonuclear destruction. (Oh, waitaminute; he tried the water-based version of that back in Genesis 6, and it didn't work.)

But on second thought, what would I tell my children? How patient would I be with them if they refused and rebelled? I would weep and mourn, probably, and hope that we could get to clause 7 without having to go through all the others.

Thank heaven for a merciful God; this messed-up world (including me) certainly needs mercy and grace and patience.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Denying yourself for a whole year!

So the Lord told the Israelites to take a sabbatical year:
For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops. But in the seventh year the land is to have a sabbath of rest, a sabbath to the Lord. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards. Do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the grapes of your untended vines. The land is to have a year of rest.
Leviticus 25.3-5
I seem to remember hearing that the Israelites never ever obeyed this.

But the thing that occurred to me this time around was: what would it have been like to the average Israelite? I mean, all the time they normally would have spent pruning, sowing, weeding, harvesting, and all that other stuff -- what were they going to do instead?

"I'm off to the fields, then... Ah, no-I'm-not."

Maybe they'd head down to the Side Track Tap. If they were in Minnesota in the winter they might go ice fishing. But good grief, for agricultural people to not spend time sowing, pruning, or harvesting...

And how would it be for all these guys in Software Valley, the ones who feel they were Born To Code? Or those guys in Minnesota in a snowless winter, shoveling snow in their sleep.

And if that weren't bad enough, after 49 years, they were supposed to take two years off. Well, from my understanding they never did that, either.

But what would that be like? I think taking a whole year off with none of the usual work would be, well, a life-changing experience. What would that be like? Well, I don't know, but if a lot of us did it, I'm going to say that retirement wouldn't be as traumatic as it is for many.

And I don't know what it will be like for me, assuming that I make it that far. Maybe if I took a year off first, retirement would be less traumatic for me too. But will I do it? I sure don't know. And if I did it, what would I do in it? Don't know that either.