Monday, April 30, 2007

Where Was He?

"Where was Jesus before he was born?" Isn't that a great question? It came up in a small group studying John's gospel. You may recall that John chapter 1 talks a lot about "the word" and "the light." By the time you get to this part, it's clear that "the word" and "the light" are names for Jesus:
14The word became flesh and dwelt among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the only begotten (or the one and only) from the Father, full of grace and truth.
John 1:14
So where was Jesus before he "became flesh"? First, let's see how the context can help us. A few lines up we see this:
1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was with God in the beginning. 3Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. ... 9The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.
John 1:1-3,9
So the first answer to "Where was Jesus before he was born?" is this: He was with God, and he was God. Verse 9, which says he was "coming into the world," implies that he was not in the world immediately before that.

Back in verse 14, we read that the word "became flesh," which says that, at least just before this, the word was not a physical human being.

So he was not in this world, and because he wasn't a physical being, perhaps he didn't have a location, didn't have spatial coordinates.

Those are some clues from John chapter 1; how about other parts of the Bible?

Later on in John's gospel, Jesus talks about the glory he had with the Father before the world began. And later in the New Testament, the Apostle Paul writes about how Jesus was "in the form of God" (the NIV renders this "...being in very nature God" -- being equal to God in his essence I guess), which confirms the idea of not being a physical being, but doesn't say much about where he was or what he was doing in earlier centuries.

Some time ago, I heard the theory that "the angel of the Lord", who appears quite a lot in the Old Testament, is actually Jesus Christ before his incarnation. I'm not sure that I could prove it, but the theory seems at least plausible to me. Take a look for example in Genesis 22, when Abraham is about to sacrifice his son:
11But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, "Abraham! Abraham!"

"Here I am," he replied.

12"Do not lay a hand on the boy," he said. "Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me."
Genesis 22:11-12
Notice how the angel says "I know that you fear God" but immediately afterward says "not withheld your son... from me". Abraham was going to make a sacrifice to God, which the angel took as being for himself -- that is, the angel speaks as though he were God himself... and yet also speaks of God in the third person. Which sounds familiar: "The word was with God and the word was God."

If that's true, then Jesus might have been coming to earth and appearing to people occasionally -- a dozen times or more -- in Old Testament times.

So what does all this mean? Well, what it means to me is that the whole plan, where Jesus becomes flesh and comes into the world, gives life to us who are dying, then sacrifices himself for us -- this plan was never a surprise to Jesus; he knew it from the time the world was created.

What a great love he had for us -- has for us -- he had all that time to think about it; he visited the earth time and again, saw our depravity, our poverty, and still came to live it with us. And die for us.


Sunday, April 29, 2007

What things?

Some decades ago, a friend gave me a tape cassette (that's how long ago it was) containing a message -- a sermon -- about obedience. The speaker was a Robb Powrie-Smith, whom I've never seen in person, but I remembered something he said about the reliability of God's word. His remarks were based on the passage in today's New Testament reading from Luke 24. Here, two disciples were walking to Emmaus, which is about seven miles (about 11 km) from Jerusalem. As they walked along, Jesus himself joined them, though they didn't know who he was for some reason.
17He asked them, "What are you discussing together as you walk along?"

They stood still, their faces downcast. 18One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, "Are you only a visitor to Jerusalem and do not know the things that have happened there in these days?"

19"What things?" he asked.

"About Jesus of Nazareth," they replied. "He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people.
Luke 24:17-19
Cleopas goes on to tell the stranger (as he thinks) about how Jesus was betrayed and crucified (though they thought Jesus was going to redeem Israel). They were amazed, too, because his body was not found where it was laid.

The thing I remember from that sermon was the observation that Jesus didn't say, "That was me; let me tell you what it was about.":
25He said to them, "How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?" 27And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
Luke 24:25-27
What a conversation that must have been! Anyway, his point was that Jesus didn't appeal to his experience or theirs; he directed their attention instead to the Bible.
Another Bible teacher, I think it was Dr. James Boice, explained that phrase in verse 27: "Moses and all the Prophets... all the Scriptures." I thought it was pretty cool. That phrase doesn't mean a lot to modern (or postmodern) Christian readers, but to 1st-century Jews it would be obvious. Their Bible (what we call the Old Testament, but with a different ordering of the books) has three sections, so to speak: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. Luke 24:27 says "Moses" for the Law, and a word translated "Scriptures" for the Writings, but otherwise it is just a way of saying "he explained to them what was said about himself throughout the whole Bible." I believe that the Jewish people have a sort of acronym for this -- the law is "Torah", the prophets are "nebiim", and the writings are "ketubim." Or something like that. The acronym is something like "tanach", which is a word i think I've seen elsewhere -- maybe in Chaim Potok's books?
One could overdo this (In response to "How are you doing?" one might answer, "The Apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians, 'We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed.' How about you?") but there are certainly advantages to using Scripture, rather than some anecdote from my life, to teach spiritual truths.

But wait -- wasn't that sermon from the "modern" rather than the "postmodern" era? Well yes, it probably was from the 1970s. But what do we want to impart to those we teach? (And even if you don't have a classroom or a title, you do have influence!)

One very important thing I hope to pass on is just this: that the Bible is a trustworthy source of truth. Some have abused and misinterpreted it, so it does require some study and careful interpretation. But the work is worth it because the Bible is God's word.

How to commend the Bible to a postmodern audience? I guess we have to share our experiences with the Scriptures and give them experiences (again with the Scriptures) so that they can develop their own experience-based trust on the word of God.

Teach like Jesus, in other words: with the Scriptures. And we can learn like the disciples -- by reading 'em.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Success Is Hard

A biography of Amy Simple MacPherson was reviewed recently in The New Yorker, and we noted that spiritual success brings temptation that's hard to resist. (It may be even harder to deal with than financial success -- not having spectacular success in either area, I'm not sure.) Gideon son of Joash had great success: guided by the angel of the Lord, he defeated enemy armies amounting to 135,000 -- and his army had only 300. Afterwards, though, the people wanted him to rule. He declined (which was good), saying "The Lord will rule over you" -- but:
24... he said, "I do have one request, that each of you give me an earring from your share of the plunder." (It was the custom of the Ishmaelites to wear gold earrings.) 25They answered, "We'll be glad to give them." So they spread out a garment, and each man threw a ring from his plunder onto it.
27Gideon made the gold into an ephod, which he placed in Ophrah, his town. All Israel prostituted themselves by worshiping it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and his family.
from Judges 8:24-27
Oops. What was that about? Did he want something visible to worship? Did he like having a lot of tourists come to his town?

I don't know what he thought about as a young man, but I'm pretty sure he never said, "Someday the Lord will lead me to spectacular military success, and afterwards I'll corrupt the whole nation and ensnare my family." He started well; how did he get off track?

The text doesn't tell us explicitly, but I noticed that Gideon talked and listened to the Lord before the battle, but the text doesn't say anything about talking to the Lord after it. Was that the problem? I'm sure it was no coincidence.

It's really hard to stay on track when everybody is saying you're great. So perhaps the secret is to do what Gideon apparently didn't -- when success comes, to increase, rather than slack off, talking and (especially) listening to God?

May God help us, at whatever stage of success we reach, to remember to listen to him!

Friday, April 27, 2007

Who are those three guys?

A friend from another country recently visited a church near her home. There she saw a picture of three men on crosses and had no idea what that was about.
Churches have crosses, Jesus is on the cross, and we worship Jesus. Sounds like crosses have something to do with worship. Who are those two other guys on crosses? Why don't we worship them? Aren't they the other members of the Holy Trinity or something?
Carol told me about this, and I thought, "What a great question!" It's one kind of question that the North American church is by and large not addressing.

When we talk to people about Jesus -- whether individually or in large or small groups -- we often assume a lot of background knowledge: that the cross was a cruel method of execution, that Jesus was crucified between two criminals, this sort of thing. As we talk to people from different cultures (in particular, people who don't have the background knowledge the church has typically assumed), we'll need to be prepared for questions like that.

That incident came to mind because today's New Testament reading is about that grisly scene, and
this exchange in particular:
39One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: "Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!"

40But the other criminal rebuked him. "Don't you fear God," he said, "since you are under the same sentence? 41We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong." 42Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."

43Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise."
from Luke 23:39-43
What do you think about those criminals? I wonder what kind of lives they had growing up, whether ordinary or exceptionally miserable (or exceptionally pleasant). What dreams did their parents have for them?

And when did things start going wrong? What kinds of things had people said to him during his life? "You'll never amount to anything," maybe? What kind of names did people call him?

I don't envy their lives, but I can't help thinking that the second criminal had an enviable measure of happiness and joy in his death. He found faith in God, faith in Jesus. And when he asked Jesus to "remember me" -- What did that mean? "Take pity on me" maybe? -- and heard Jesus's answer, what must he have felt?

As he breathed his last, I'm sure that the curses and hardships in his life had faded, and that Jesus's words were what rang in his ears: "Today you will be with me in paradise."

At the end of my life, I want to be thinking about that, too. Not that I've had any hardships at all compared to these guys, but at the end I want to be looking forward to the joy of paradise with Jesus.

posted 4/28

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Delusion or Inspiration?

I think it was somebody named Kennedy who said this maybe 40 years ago: "Some men see things as they are and ask 'Why?'; I dream things that never were and ask 'Why not?'" Today's reading from the book of Judges shows God taking that one step further; he calls things that are not as though they were.

Here's the setting: raiders from Midian invade the Israelite territory, ruining crops and destroying livestock, and the Israelites prepare hideouts for themselves in mountain caves and the like. In the midst of this...
11The angel of the Lord came and sat down under the oak in Ophrah that belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, where his son Gideon was threshing wheat in a winepress to keep it from the Midianites. 12When the angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon, he said, "The Lord is with you, mighty warrior."
Judges 6:11-12
The scene is almost comical. Gideon is hiding out in this enclosure to thresh out the grain, and the angel of the Lord calls him a "mighty warrior." Gideon is so astonished that he forgets to be afraid. (Most of the time, when an angel appears, his first words are, "Don't be afraid.")

What follows is truly outstanding, and many sermons have been preached on it. You've probably heard some. But I want to focus today on "the vision thing." Gideon was hiding in a winepress. (I looked this up once in a Bible dictionary, and I seem to remember that it's basically a box.) He's not in a very warrior-like position, but the Lord's angel calls him "mighty warrior."

What an astonishing event! It's a naming actually. The Lord (OK, his angel) is giving Gideon a new picture of himself, and with the new picture, a new mission. Not Gideon the timid, barely scraping by -- but Gideon the Mighty Warrior, who will lead his people to victory.

This makes me think of two things. First, is there a mission I'm missing because the name, the picture I have of myself, isn't the right one? Is my Milquetoast image of myself at variance with the image, and the mission, God has for me?

Second, is there someone that I need to help rename? Do my wife and children, for example, know that I see them as powerful agents of blessing in the world? Do my colleagues know that I think they're doing, and will do, great things? I hope so!

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Oxen and IPOs

Randy probably thinks I know only one verse in the whole Bible. A number of years ago, when his company was trying to expand, he was thinking about venture capitalists. The money they provide can be very helpful for a business, but when you let these guys in, life can get really messy. Anyway, we were talking about that, and I read this verse to him:
Without oxen the manger is clean,
but from the strength of the ox comes an abundant harvest.
Proverbs 14:4
Or, "if you don't hire help, you don't need a payroll department, but you can't do it all yourself." I don't remember what else we talked about that day, but I think he decided to go ahead and use them.

The company went public, and some years later, he mentioned some other issue to me. I don't remember what it was -- outsourcing/subcontracting, cross-marketing agreement, some other kind of partnership. I said, "Well, you know, Randy, without oxen the manger is clean, but much profit comes from the strength of the ox."

He gave me this funny look and said, "You gave me that verse 10 years ago too!"

If your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail, right? If the only verse you know is one about oxen, then every problem looks like a tradeoff between complexity and upside potential!

Oh well, I never claimed to be much of a Bible scholar. Or a businessman either, for that matter. But isn't that a great verse? It doesn't say that every complicating piece of technology is worth it, but it does warn against a technophobic bias.

I love that about the Bible -- It's got wisdom from the ages, yet it's fresh as today.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Lessons in Despair?

The book of Judges, whence comes this morning's Old Testament reading, is an interesting study in human nature. It's not terribly encouraging. What is encouraging, though, is what we find out about God's long-term commitment to his people -- one that has lasted centuries.

Their problems take a turn for the worse after Joshua's generation. The new generation did not know the Lord, hadn't experienced his deliverance from Egypt, and left him to serve other gods.
14In his anger against Israel the Lord handed them over to raiders who plundered them. He sold them to their enemies all around, whom they were no longer able to resist. 15Whenever Israel went out to fight, the hand of the Lord was against them to defeat them, just as he had sworn to them. They were in great distress. 16Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hands of these raiders. 17Yet they would not listen to their judges but prostituted themselves to other gods and worshiped them. Unlike their fathers, they quickly turned from the way in which their fathers had walked, the way of obedience to the Lord's commands.
Joshua 2:14-17
Two things strike me about this. First, there's a note of nostalgia, and if this weren't the inspired word of God I'd suspect a case of rose-colored glasses. Ah, the good old days, the days of the golden calf, the days of their refusal to enter the Promised Land, the days when they spoke of stoning Moses and returning to Egypt, when they disobeyed and God sent a plague on them...

But since this is the inspired word of God, I think that the author wrote verse 17 for a purpose: to communicate to future generations that the rebellious crew we read about in Exodus and Numbers had nothing on this new generation. Compared to these people in Judges chapter 2, their rebellious forefathers were just slightly stubborn puppies.

The second thing I notice here is the folly: they disobey God, things go poorly, God sends them a judge to deliver them, they don't listen. This reminds me for some reason of poor old Semmelweis, who discovered that when doctors wash their hands, fewer patients die. The judges foreshadowed Semmelweis in that they delivered people from raiders (Semmelweis delivered quite a few from needless disease) but weren't obeyed (they ruined Semmelweis's career and he died destitute).

Anyone who thinks mankind is basically good or rational would do well to study both Semmelweis and the book of Judges.

But that's not the last word! In the very next verse, we read:
18Whenever the Lord raised up a judge for them, he was with the judge and saved them out of the hands of their enemies as long as the judge lived; for the Lord had compassion on them as they groaned under those who oppressed and afflicted them.
Judges 2:18
So although they kept refusing and rebelling, the Lord kept delivering them.

This is a good word: God never gives up. He knows we're foolish and corrupt, but he sticks with us anyway. Good news for modern or ancient man.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Numbering our days

Not always, but often I feel I live a charmed life. Carol and I walked the dog this morning and prayed briefly for each other. Sheri got up and told us about a dream -- doing a crossword puzzle in some foreign language class. Jenny was eating fudge -- a friend was doing a biology experiment, and had recruited her to eat "simple sugars" at breakfast today.

On the way to school, the kids talked about songs they had sung in Japan, and about the "Tupper-Kids Tunes" (or something like this) -- a tape we used to play in the car. They sang the chorus, and when Sheri threatened to sing it in school, Jenny said she wouldn't walk with her if she did.

I left the car with them today (Jenny has an appointment with a photographer, to make slides of her art work after school). As I took my bike off the rack, I watched them walk off to class, chatting happily about something or other.

There are at most a few dozen more mornings like this left, because Jenny will be done with high school basically at the end of next month, and will be out of the house in September.

Today's reading from the psalms includes this gem:
Teach us to number our days aright,
that we may gain a heart of wisdom
Psalm 90:12
I'm not sure if it means what I'm feeling now, but I'm intensely aware these days that life will soon change significantly. The first chick will leave the nest, to return only for visits. And it was just the other day, too, when we brought her home from the hospital.

We sure have a lot of happy memories, a great many blessings from God. But a door closes in a few months. Another blink, and they'll both be gone.

What are my hopes for the time I have left on earth? The temptation is to think there's always tomorrow, but one day there won't be. There's time to do what we need to do, there's time for needed rest, there's time for refreshment and relaxation and play. But none to waste.

Play is not waste. Play is good; waste is bad. A fine line.

posted 4/24

Stop me before I P on your stuff again! --Duke

It was about 4:00. AM. The sound of dog-toenails was making me nervous. Apparently he didn't get locked up. I came out to the dining-room.

A rustling noise from the den. "Hey!" I called. "What are you doing there?!" Duke slunk back into the kitchen and headed toward the side-door. I let him out to the yard, then entered the den to survey the damage. There was a smell.

Fortunately it was only #1. Expensive art books were on the floor -- fortunately just a few droplets were on them. After I wiped them off, I couldn't smell anything on the books. Thank God!

There is still some dog-output on some other stuff, but the art books are OK. I let him back in and locked him in his cage.

I was sorely vexed. I made a sign for the girls to see this morning: "Duke MUST be locked up at night, ESPECIALLY when there is art (or books) on the floor!" And I put a frowny-face with tears of vexation (though you couldn't tell what kind of tears they were in the drawing), and wrote "Dad 4:05am" on it.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

A million-dollar donation! Wow! Or not.

Some years ago, I heard a sermon about giving where the teacher asked who would be impressed by a million-dollar donation (to the church, to missions, to the poor, whatever). Well, I would be. That's a lot of money.

He made the point that Jesus wouldn't necessarily be impressed with that, citing this from today's New Testament reading.
1As he looked up, Jesus saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. 2He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. 3"I tell you the truth," he said, "this poor widow has put in more than all the others. 4All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on."
Luke 21:1-3
God isn't impressed with the things that tend to impress us. Or, more aptly, it's interesting to note that the things that are truly impressive (according to him) don't impress us. Well, that's not so surprising I guess; we tend to look at the external appearance whereas God looks at the heart.

When I think about "the widow's mite," as some say, my tendency is to feel like a wimp when it comes to giving. I don't give even half of my income (or of my wealth) to God's work, let alone "all that she had to live on."

Well, there's no profit in comparing, is there? I think that the real takeaway here is -- or should be -- "Don't be overly impressed by things that don't impress God," rather than some kind of comparison with someone else (a tycoon, an impoverished widow).

And probably that applies outside of finance: in faith, in service, or in the outward appearance of spirituality -- not to be overly impressed, not to compare, but to try to see the world as the Lord does.

And to follow him in the ways he's called me, and enjoy his presence and his loving acceptance.

May he so help us.

posted 4/23

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Stony Brook

The older teen got a nice letter from Stony Brook inviting her to attend. It was worth a visit, so we reserved seats on Delta 148 SFO-JFK nonstop, departing at 7:05am. Which means you want to check in 6:05am. Which means an early morning wake-up.

SFO long-term parking

My first mistake was to take the airport exit off US 101 north. Don't do that! Take the San Bruno Ave exit instead. Head "east" and follow the signs to long-term parking. The garage is pretty cool -- it tells you which floors are full, etc. Write your location on the ticket, lest you forget (as I did) which floor you were on. (Fortunately Jenny remembered.)

Delta Airlines

The flight was packed, I mean packed. We traveled light (only 1½ days there) and had no trouble fitting our bags under the seats or in the rather small (Boeing 757) overhead bins. No meal is served, but the snacks are enough to keep "your big guts from eating up your little guts," as a friend of mine used to say. The flight was uneventful. Liquids are offered with sufficient frequency, and the in-flight info-tainment system was very nice. I especially liked the "iXplor" (or something like this), which showed where the flight was on a map of the US.


At JFK, we followed the signs to the Air-Train. The car rentals are at station "C". Here is how the airtrain works: First, it's free within the airport, but it connects to Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) at Jamaica (station "D"), where you'll have to pay. The terminals are arranged in a circle, and trains go on the "inside" (clockwise) and "outside" (CCW) tracks. The "inside" trains go only among/between the terminals. If you want to get to the car rental station, you have to take one of the trains on the "outside" tracks. I think all the "outside" trains go to "C"; subsequently some continue to stations "A" and "B" whereas others go to "D" instead.

Hertz Rent-A-Car wasn't far. They offered me a gas fill-up at something like $2.95 a gallon (it's over $3 outside). Of course, I would need no more than half a tank at $3, so I couldn't see buying a full tank at $2.95 or even $2.50...

Yahoo! maps told us to take the Belt Parkway to the Southern State Parkway (or something like this) to Sagtikos and then the 495 east. This was not such a good plan. Since there were two of us, we should have taken the 495 the whole way and used the HOV lane. Anyway we found the hotel without incident.

Holiday Inn Hauppauge

Apparently you pronounce this "hope-hoag" not "hop-podge". We were checked in by a tall dark clerk wearing a suit (or maybe it was a tie and jacket) and a stud in his right ear. I asked him about the trip back to the airport etc., and he mentioned the HOV lane and why 495 was probably a better bet than trying to take the SSP all the way into JFK. Good advice!

The room had 2 queen beds and was nicely decorated. The alarm clock-radio was unplugged, and we soon found out why: you can set the hours but not the minutes. I think the "minutes" button is simply broken. This is in room 519. If you stay there, I would be curious to know whether they repaired or replaced it.

Fortunately, they do wake-up calls.

There is a koi pond outside. Lots of fish. We wondered what they (the fish) did in the winter. It looked crowded for them.

SUNY Stony Brook

I had faxed them with a letter (my email didn't draw any reply) and they called me at the office Monday. So Jenny was set up with a class to visit and an admissions counselor.

"Pat" at the admissions office was efficient and friendly. We happened to arrive on a day when they had a bunch of pastries and such in the office. Some high school counselors were visiting, so they'd fed them.

First Impressions

We followed Z. (a freshman from New York City) to the Old Chemistry building for a lecture (big lecture hall) on world politics. The "Academic Mall" reminded me of nothing so much as "The Mall" at the University of Hawaii (Manoa).

As we walked, I asked Z. what the best thing was about Stony Brook. He said it was the people in his living situation -- the relationships. Also that a lot of his friends went to school at SB.

I went over to the central reading room at the library and tried to use the wireless access. Oops, looks like a username and password were required. They also said they disallowed IM and FTP, so I'm guessing that ssh (particularly to a nonstandard port in the 40000 range) also would have been blocked. Oh well, at least they had power. I looked at the people coming in the door. "Red and yellow, black and white." Very cool.

Jenny was underwhelmed by the poli-sci lecture, where the prof also offered up a surprise quiz. Well, I suppose big lecture halls are pretty much the same everywhere.

Jenny and I walked around the library, which has a bunch of other offices. We checked out the bookstore (run by B&N?!) and eventually made our way over to the admissions office for our appointment. Pat greeted us and took the eval form. She introduced us to the receptionist, a woman with a "What part of New York are you from?" kind of accent. She gave Jenny another questionnaire to fill out, then called "Dashing Dina" on the phone to say that her 12:00 was here.

The Interview

We pelted Dina with our list of questions. "If you could change one thing about SUNY Stony Brook..." I said, and she finished, "What would it be? Parking. But I'm answering it from an administrative position rather than a student's perspective." Fair enough.

"I know it's unfair to ask this, but I'm going to ask anyway. If somebody got shot in a dorm here, would it be two hours before emails went out to the student body?" Well, they're working on a disaster plan, but it's not in place yet. Fair enough.

Average class size? Some are 250-500 (mostly the "intro to psych" kind of classes) but the upper division classes are much smaller. (We later found out that 75% of the classes have <40.)

Dina told us about the vast resources of a large university... Jenny asked if those vast resources were available to undergrads. A key moment in the interview was when Dina pulled out a book -- it might have been 5/8" thick -- with abstracts of undergraduate research, 1-2 pages each. Need I say that there were lots of them, or that we were impressed? These were published papers from one school year.

The Tour

We went on a tour of the campus led by two undergrads -- a sophomore (pre-med maybe? "Organic chem is Hard.") and a junior (a senior according to credits) with two options: one was some sort of professional school (law?) and the other in academia. I think the point was if she didn't get into law school, she'd do the other. Drat, shoulda written this up sooner when this was fresher.

One of our tour guides was from Brooklyn and the other was from India. I asked what the best thing was about SB. One said the breadth of curriculum (whatever you want to study, it's here) and the other said relationships -- residential life. One thing to change if they could? One said that well, some classes are too hard but you can't really change that (organic chem). I forgot what the other one said.

On the tour, we encountered two girls who told us, "Don't come here! Don't do it!" I asked, "Why not?" and one said, "It's too big and it's not fun."

One of our tour guides said that people who say that are often commuters; they take the train in, take their classes, and take the train (or car) home. They often have jobs. They miss the activities, and have no residential life.


We had an appointment to meet someone from InterVarsity at 2:30, but we still hadn't eaten. So we went to SAC (student activities center) and found the food line. It was long, but we were soon in one cafeteria. We picked items from the refrigerator case: Thai/Vegan ravioli, a turkey wrap, and an Odwalla juice: $18. Yow! Well, it tasted good.

We learned on the tour about the meal plan. You get a card with "points" on it, worth a buck each I think. You use that to buy meals, snacks, etc. If you have too many left over at the end of the term, they don't carry over. You can, however, buy a case of water-bottles or something.

The cards are good at the SAC and at "Jasmine", a Thai-Indian-Chinese eatery in the "Wang Center" -- Wang as in founder of Computer Associates. The building is gorgeous.

Meeting Gloria and Nelvin

I have no idea if I spelled that right. They are involved with the IV group at Stony Brook, which has its own website. They were very high on the school, very enthusiastic. The current wave of hypocritical PC-stuff has, in their experience, either not arrived yet or already bypassed the campus. Liberal apparently really means "I respect you no matter what you believe" there -- unlike some other places where it means "I respect you unless you're evangelical Christian scum. Or a Republican slimebag."

Thursday evening

We decided to head over to Port Jefferson, a cutesy college town (apparently, historic Stony Brook is more for the geriatric set). An early dinner might have been a possibility, except that we'd eaten lunch after 2pm. After some walking around, we drove back to Hauppauge, stopping for dinner at the "Strada". A bit pricey but very good.

Back at the hotel, Jenny inspected the catalog. Then we pulled down sections of another college's catalog. The breadth of classes at Stony Brook was impressive.

There's more, but I'll stop here.

Let's not be hasty

When Israel entered the Promised Land, three tribes (2½ actually) were allotted land east of the Jordan: Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh. After they helped their brothers take their allotments in the west, Joshua sent them home to their eastern territories with his blessings.

They built a big, imposing altar near the Jordan, and their brothers assumed the worst -- that the altar was for worshiping other gods -- and prepared for war. They sent a delegation, a priest and ten clan leaders, to the (assumed) rebels, where they delivered a sermonette about rebelling against the Lord. Today's reading, from the book of Joshua, picks up immediately after the sermonette is over. The 2½ tribes reply to this delegation:
22"The Mighty One, God, the Lord! The Mighty One, God, the Lord! He knows! And let Israel know! If this has been in rebellion or disobedience to the Lord, do not spare us this day. 23If we have built our own altar to turn away from the Lord and to offer burnt offerings and grain offerings, or to sacrifice fellowship offerings on it, may the Lord himself call us to account.

24"No! We did it for fear that some day your descendants might say to ours, 'What do you have to do with the Lord, the God of Israel? 25The Lord has made the Jordan a boundary between us and you--you Reubenites and Gadites! You have no share in the Lord.' So your descendants might cause ours to stop fearing the Lord.
Joshua 22:22-25
Whew! There wouldn't be any need for bloodshed among brothers. Since the ten had misunderstood their brothers' motives, it was good that they sent a delegation to find out what was really going on.

But given that these groups had been fighting the same enemies side-by-side, how did this misunderstanding happen? The "right-bankers" (the ten) saw the altar and immediately assumed evil intent, whereas this possible interpretation was apparently off the left-bankers’ radars. Why were they so different?

A few things come to mind. One is a principle of communication I heard some decades ago: that it's not enough to say things so they can be understood -- or even so they can be easily understood. What one must do is communicate in such a way that it's impossible to misunderstand -- or at least very hard. So if for example the altar had written clearly on it, "This altar bears witness between the 9½ tribes on the right bank and the 2½ tribes on the left bank that we all belong to the Lord, the God of Israel, that the Jordan divides the land but it does not divide our nation," then the right-bankers might not have been so concerned that their brothers had gone astray.

Another thing that occurred to me was the fallacy of attribution (if I have that phrase correct). That is, if I see you grumping at your kids, I think it's because you're impatient, intolerant, and not very understanding. But if I'm grumping at mine, I think it's because my great patience, though nearly limitless, has nevertheless been exhausted over many hours and despite many warnings, etc. In other words, I know I'm a good guy (at least I think so), but I'm not so sure about you.

How could this misunderstanding have been avoided? Well, of course if you could've imagined in advance the possible misunderstanding... but what if you couldn't have? Here's a possibility, that I heard about in a workshop on communication in marriage. The key word is "telegraphing", which in this context means to sort of "call or wire ahead" with your intentions. "Honey, I'm really looking forward to this vaation. I'm imagining that we'll have time for just sitting on the porch, watching the waves and sipping our coffee." Which then gives your partner the chance to say, "Glad you mentioned that, because there were 12-15 art museums I was hoping to visit. Per day." Or whatever. So that some discussion could happen before departure, or at least before you reach the "Why are you sitting on the porch again today?!" stage.

This has worked really well for us in vacation planning. The advantage we have over these tribes, of course, is that we've done this several times. "What would make ethis a good vacation for you?" -- and we all answer (the kids too) and talk about how to make it a good time for everyone.

So if before leaving the other ten (or 9½) tribes, the 2½ had said, "So guys, we were thinking, what if in the future our descendants and yours think that the Jordan is some kind of boundary and they forget that they're all part of the same nation? So we were thinking to build this big altar as a witness between us that we are all one...." or something like this, all those worries and all that sermonizing and the troop mobilization... maybe all that stuff would have been avoided?

Wars and family fights all saved by the telegraph? Maybe.

And if the telegraph is broken, it's good to ask first and shoot later; at least it beats the "Shoot first and ask questions later" methodology of the Wild West.

posted 4/22

Friday, April 20, 2007

Turn me into a chump. No, never mind, I'll do it myself

Something odd happens to people who oppose Jesus -- they tend to look faintly ridiculous after a while. Not that they're trying to look foolish; they just turn out that way somehow. Watch what happens to these guys:
1One day as he was teaching the people in the temple courts and preaching the gospel, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, together with the elders, came up to him. 2"Tell us by what authority you are doing these things," they said. "Who gave you this authority?"

3He replied, "I will also ask you a question. Tell me, 4John's baptism--was it from heaven, or from men?"

5They discussed it among themselves and said, "If we say, 'From heaven,' he will ask, 'Why didn't you believe him?' 6But if we say, 'From men,' all the people will stone us, because they are persuaded that John was a prophet." 7So they answered, "We don't know where it was from."

8Jesus said, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things."
Luke 20:1-8
What a bunch of clowns! They come off acting like some kind of authorities. But they're blind and cowardly. These guys are supposed to be spiritual leaders, but they're not even willing to say what they believe.

The style of rhetoric and argumentation sure was different in first century Israel than it would be in 21st century America. Today, the typical thing would be to point out their beliefs as shown by their actions. Maybe you could even get the people to stone them: "You didn't believe John, so you must think his baptism came from men!" or something like this. Maybe the people really would have stoned them.

But that wouldn't have served his purpose. After all, these chumps had to be around so they could later persuade the Romans to kill him.

Jesus does, however, make things very uncomfortable for these priests, teachers of the law, and elders; he tells the people a parable describing the future of these self-styled "spiritual leaders." In other words, they dig a hole for themselves and Jesus helps them do it.

As I reflect on this passage, a couple of things stand out to me.

First, when someone points out to me that I've messed up -- whether by making me look ridiculous or by some other means -- I want to be willing to repent. Because it's better to know whether I'm right (and maybe find out I'm wrong) than to go on thinking I'm right (and actually being wrong). If I'm making myself a chump by acting cowardly and by denying the truth, in other words, let me find out so I can stop!

Second, when confronting someone who's making a chump of himself, my first reaction is sometimes to force him to 'fess up to his folly -- to lead him around to the truth, and get frustrated when he refused to follow. I get caught up in the moment, in other words; I don't always keep the mission in view.

This came up in a negotiation class. Sometimes you catch your interlocutor in a blatant lie. This kind of thing tends to drive me up the wall, but that doesn't accomplish my goal in the negotiation. Instead it may reward the liar. My personal weakness, in other words, may compromise the objective.

In either scenario, the thing I need to do is this: keep the goal in mind. To find out whether I'm right and make corrections is better than to keep going in the wrong direction because it feels better right now. And to accomplish the mission (as Jesus said, "I have glorified your name on the earth, by finishing the work you gave me to do.") is better than venting my spleen or allowing myself to get side-tracked by my passions. ("A heart at peace gives life to the body, but passion rots the bones," as the Proverbs say.)

May God help me to keep my purpose -- his purpose for my life -- in view, that I may live for him and not just for my feelings.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

A Tree of Life -- and Holy Dissatisfaction

Today's reading from Proverbs has a verse I've thought about and quoted many times:
Hope deferred makes the heart sick,
but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life
Proverbs 13:12
Hope deferred -- haven't we all experienced that at one time or another? When I was single, I often hoped for a close, intimate relationship. And during that time of deferred hope, "sick at heart" was an apt description. But that longing was fulfilled, as was the desire for children.

And now, most of the time, I feel like I'm enjoying the "tree of life" described in the second line.

I just looked, and found that outside of Proverbs, the "tree of life" is mentioned in the Bible only in Genesis and Revelation. In both places, the tree is in Paradise -- in the Garden of Eden, and in heaven. Does a longing fulfilled, then, give us a taste of Paradise? Maybe so! One might imagine Paradise as a place where all good desires are fulfilled -- and, one may hope, bad desires purged.

Here's something else that occurs to me, though. This life is far from perfect. I'm far from perfect. Shouldn't I be longing for something that will be satisfied only in heaven? It's good to be content (Paul says that godliness with contentment is "great gain"), but bad to be complacent.

So, do I long for heaven? Yes, a little, because struggles will be over then. And we won't have to take out the garbage or clean up after the dog. Doctors won't have to use the "C" word; they'll never have to say "I'm sorry; we tried, but..."

But as far as my own imperfections, salvation for my friends, injustice in the world... have I made peace with mediocrity -- and with evil?

May God give me holy discontentment, a holy dissatisfaction with this life -- that I may long for all and only the things I should.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

This Rich Guy Was Different

Yesterday's reading showed Jesus encountering a rich young man who decided not to follow. In today's text, Jesus encounters Zacchaeus, who reacts much differently. Here's something I hadn't noticed:
1Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3He wanted to see who Jesus was, but being a short man he could not, because of the crowd.
Luke 19:1-3
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. But he meets Zacchaeus, who was a short man. Jesus invites himself to stay at Zacchaeus's house. But wasn't he just passing through? Obviously, he changed his plans. I find that fascinating.

Why did he change his plans? Did he see something worthy in Zacchaeus, or did he just decide to make something worthy out of Zacchaeus? Come to think of it, what if anything did he see in me? (Or you?)

Anyway, after Jesus invites himself to Zack's house, we don't see Jesus telling him anything more; the next voice Luke records is that of the tax collector:
8But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, "Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount."

9Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. "
Luke 19:8-9
I can't help but compare Zacchaeus to the ruler we met yesterday:
  • The ruler walked up to Jesus and asked him something; Zacchaeus only wanted to see.
  • The ruler had kept the commandments and seemed to have a good reputation; Zacchaeus had a rotten one and certainly didn't claim to be a keeper of the commandments.
  • Jesus told the ruler to sell his possessions; he didn't tell Zacchaeus anything, but invited himself to Zacchaeus's house!
  • And yet the ruler went away sad, whereas Jesus says salvation came to Zacchaeus.
With that list of differences (they were both rich but there the similarities end), what's the takeaway?
  1. Zacchaeus had no illusions about his spiritual standing; he was bankrupt. And yet he found salvation. This reminds me of "Blessed are the poor in spirit."
  2. What Zacchaeus did -- giving away half -- was less than what Jesus told the rich ruler to do. And yet it was enough. There was some kind of change in Zack's heart. But the way he demonstrated it was with a concrete action step.
So what does this mean for me? Well, I think the thing is... if I say I believe in Jesus, that I accept God's way of looking at things, what do my actions show of those beliefs? Something to think about.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Where is he now?

Today's reading, from Luke's gospel, is sometimes referred to as the story of the "rich young ruler". He comes to Jesus, calling him "Good teacher," and asking him about eternal life.
19"Why do you call me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good--except God alone. 20You know the commandments: 'Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.'"

21"All these I have kept since I was a boy," he said.

22When Jesus heard this, he said to him, "You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."

23When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth.
Luke 18:18-23
Jesus says, rather off-handedly I think, that no one is good except God alone. And that's certainly true. I mean, I know people who are relatively good; I know of people who are good people, relatively speaking. But, as someone reported, even Mother Teresa was far from perfect -- as she herself had said.

Was Jesus saying, "Why are you calling me God?" I'm not sure. Anyway, the ruler is confident that he's obeyed the external regulations. Jesus apparently discerns something about the man's inner condition, and tells him about the one thing he lacks.

A couple of weeks ago, we watched an episode of "Tales from the Madhouse," which was a PBS mini-series, produced in the UK I think. This particular one depicted the rich young ruler years later. No longer young, but still rich, he described his encounter with that strange rabbi from Nazareth.

It was a terrific monologue, raising questions about who the man really was. I mean, what was he like? What drove him?

And what happened to him? If he could have lived a thousand years on earth, what would he have been like nearer the end?

Well, one can always hope that he might have encountered Jesus, or one of his followers, later on, and repented then. But if he didn't... would he have died a lonely old man?

I think yes, and that scares me a little, because there's a little of that rich young ruler in me. What reward would there be if I cashed out the retirement account and gave, say, half of it away? What would happen? Would it be worth it?

I could argue one way or the other, but what have I actually done?

I'm not talking here about what's required to get eternal life, but rather about what it means to serve God, and in so doing, to get everything out of this life that he wants us to have.

I'm not sure what the answer is for now -- or for eternity, but I decide every day what to do and how to spend (or invest) the resources he has entrusted to me.

May you and I decide well.

Thank God I'm Married

I passed her as I boarded the light-rail, the brunette sitting across the aisle in the short black dress. What was that magazine she had? Could it be... the current issue of The New Yorker? (My wife has a subscription.) Yes, I recognized the illustration; she was reading the article about bipolar disorder in pre-adolescent children: “What is ‘Normal’?” or something like this.

Her shoes were off and she was playing with them, toenails painted scarlet, fuscia -- whatever. She looked up; her eyes were dark blue.

I looked away quickly, and turned my attention to the recipe I posted here yesterday.

The light-rail arrived at Mountain View, where we all got off. She charged over to where the Caltrain was just arriving. I threaded my way through the crowd and took a backward-facing seat in the second or third car. Almost done with my recipe alterations!

Some movement to my left -- The New Yorker was again in the seat across the aisle!

Thank God I'm married! If I weren't, I'd feel compelled to try to start a conversation and likely make a fool of myself. Had she read Listening to Prozac, or its refutation in Digitopia? How about Ritalin Nation? What did she think constituted a "normal" pre-adolescent child, particularly a boy? And why couldn't I just mind my own business and finish what I was writing about that casserole anyway? Bah!

Thank God I'm married!

Disclaimer: I really didn't talk to her. At all. I never saw her before and probably never will again.

Monday, April 16, 2007

I love it when he tells me the answer

Once in a while, we get a parable where the meaning is explained to us.
Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.
Luke 18:1
You've probably heard it before; a widow, who has no legal standing, no money, no power, importunes a judge -- a judge we'd probably call amoral. Almost amoral, anyway. He gives her what's right -- not because he cares, but because she's bugging him so much.

I guess Luke tells us the point of the parable because the judge is so bad, and because the point is easy to miss amidst the details.

So why did they need this parable? Didn't they already know that they should always pray? Hadn't they seen Jesus do that, and didn't they know that they should emulate him in this? Of course they did -- and so do we! But we don't, and neither did they. And that's why we need the parable.

But hold on a second. Why don't we -- and why didn't they -- pray always? Why do we -- and why did they -- feel tempted to give up? This is why I think the parable is brilliant. Here's the last part of the parable:
6And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? 8I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?"
Luke 18:6-8
Now why does he say all that? Fortunately, Luke tells us: in this parable, all the wood is behind one arrow: to show them that they should always pray and not give up. So why might they feel tempted to give up? Because they're not sure God is just?

But look -- even the unjust judge eventually does what is right, and the widow gets justice. So if they think God is unjust, they'd better not give up!

Do they think he's not listening, that they're too small and powerless? Look at the widow! Remember, "widow" is shorthand for "penniless and powerless."

Of course, you and I know all these things too. So why do we need to be reminded that we should always pray and not give up? I think that's the point of Jesus's last question: Will there be faith on the earth, will he find us believing him (praying), when he returns?

This was a tough one for those disciples in their culture -- it may be tougher for us in ours, filled as it is with instant gratification, "instant-on" TVs, cell phones, high-speed wireless internet, and so on. What do we need? What did they?

I'll tell you my reaction to this parable: "Lord, help me not to give up." Or, as someone else said, so long ago, "I do believe; help me in my unbelief!" Or, more pithily, the more we pray, the more we'll pray. Which I'm going to guess has worked for thousands of years.

May it work in my life, too. And in yours.

Is Citibank evil?

The lovely Carol is opening the mail and she says, "Here's a new Master Card®. It has your name on it, so I guess you should be the one to activate it." We both thought this was just a renewal of our existing card, so I walked over to the phone. As I looked at the mailer, I realized that this was for a completely new account.

Here's what I got:
  1. A tri-fold mailer with the card in the middle. "Please sign your new card immediately," it says.

    In the bottom third of the sheet, it says: "Just follow the steps below and begin saving with your new Citi® MasterCard®" and there's a great big "0% APR" sign. But if you read the fine print, you discover that it's for a limited period and for certain purchases. If you charge a $95 dinner, you pay their usual rate unless you pay the bill off in full. But if you charge a $105 dinner, you get 0% APR for 3 months. I don't know what happens after that.
  2. Privacy Notice.
  3. Card Agreement
  4. Supplemental Pricing Information. This last was the most interesting.
    • Standard Purchases get a 12.24% APR.
    • Standard Cash Advances get a 23.24% APR.
    • Default gets 32.24% APR.
    That "Default" is astonishing. Have you ever missed a credit card payment? We have. It's not because we didn't have the money; it was because we weren't keeping track closely enough. We pay the thing off, but if you're a day late...
So I thought, this looks to me like an unsolicited credit card offer, because I sure as heck didn't ask for a card with 32% APR.

Underneath the card is this lovely notice:
If you do not want the Citi® MasterCard®, call 800-432-0282 and we will close your account.
Now why should I have to call these clowns at all? Is it actually legal to offer unsolicited credit like this?

OK, so I humored them. I dialed the number, and keyed in my 16-digit number: 5256 xxxx yyyy zzzz. Then they ask me for the last 4 digits of my social security number! "You gotta be kidding!" I say.

"We did not get your response. Please enter the last 4 digits of the primary account holder's social security number."

I'm thinking maybe a human will come on at some point. "There is no way I'm giving you any part of my social security number," I say.

The machine asks again, and I just hang up.

So, I really don't like this. There are several things I find extremely offensive about this:
  1. UNSOLICITED and UNWANTED (sorry for SHOUTING but this is REALLY OFFENSIVE) "offer" of credit, with an...
  2. astonishing, ruinous APR.
  3. Training people to give out the last 4 digits of their SSN over the phone. What % of the phones in this country are cordless these days? Especially in homes where you're sending this sort of UNSOLICITED offer of credit? So you're training people to BROADCAST their SSN!
I did not "activate" the card, but I wonder what information is needed to activate it? If it's just the last 4 digits of the SSN, that ought to be criminal, because as the recent HP scandal showed, it's easy enough to find someone's SSN, even if they've been quite careful with it.

Well, I feel a little better after venting. I'm gonna share this information with Consumer Reports and with Knightsbridge Castle.

Breakfast casserole

OK, so here's what I took to Growing Families yesterday. It's a breakfast casserole. Originally it came from I think, but it's substantially altered to make it more heart-healthy.
  1. Preheat oven to 350°F (about 175°C).
  2. Pierce (with fork)
    • 6 medium potatoes (not russets)
    and bake about half an hour.

    If, against my advice, you use russet potatoes, especially big ones, you may need to bake them longer, lest they be underdone in the finished casserole.

  3. Meanwhile, lightly grease a 9x13 baking pan.
  4. Slice open (or slice up) and brown
    • 1 lb turkey sausage (or pork if you don't care)
    and spread it evenly in the baking pan.
  5. Cool potatoes when they're done.
  6. Meanwhile slice/dice/whatever:
    • an onion
    • a green bell pepper
    • a red bell pepper.
    Of course you can use other colors of peppers; I picked red and green.
  7. Peel potatoes if you're a masochist. Dice 'em in any case. (This is why I said not to use russets; they are painful to dice.)
  8. Sauté onion, peppers, and potatoes in
    • olive oil. Or butter if you're a Wisconsin partisan.
    Brown the potatoes if you can, but don't obsess. Spread the veggies evenly over the sausage (in baking pan).
  9. Top with:
    • 1 cup grated cheddar cheese
  10. Beat lightly:
    • 9-12 eggs (I used ten)
    Pour the eggs more or less evenly over the sausage/veggie/cheese mix. Don't worry if some parts don't look wet enough.
  11. Bake about half an hour.
You can't go wrong with this one.

Various notes

(Updated January 2014)
  • You can do part of this the day before.
    • I did steps 1–5 last night, except I forgot to grease the baking sheet.
    • I was planning to do steps 6-8 last night too, but I ran out of gas.
  • If you double the recipe, you might want to do step 8 in two batches: either saute the onions/peppers and the potatoes separately, or saute one recipe’s worth of all veggies (and spread them in one pan) and then the remainder. Otherwise you'll be tossing an enormous quantity of vegetables in your skillet or wok.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Not the symbol of the Galactic Empire

In the galaxy of Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, the Galactic Empire had a logo featuring a spaceship and a sun. (In Prelude to Foundation, imperial security forces were called "Sunbadgers".) Today's reading from the Psalms doesn't have any spaceships, but it does say ...
For the Lord God is a sun and shield;
the Lord bestows favor and honor;
no good thing does he withhold
from those whose walk is blameless.
Psalm 84:11
That's a sun and shield, not spaceship and sun. But more practically, I'm glad to read that the Lord bestows favor and honor. Because unlike some caricatures of the Lord as hanging judge or cosmic killjoy, the truth is that he wants to build us up and give favor and honor.

The next part of the verse -- that he withholds no good thing from the blameless -- I don't think is to be taken mathematically. If you don't have enough to eat, that doesn't prove that your walk is blameworthy. Nor does it prove that food is bad (or fasting is good).

And if you get some sort of auto-immune disease or cancer, that doesn't prove anything either. It reminds me of a place in the New Testament that tells husbands to be kind to their wives, so that nothing will hinder their prayers. Not mathematical propositions, but wise advice. I think we can count on God to be with us in whatever situation we're in, and we can hope for great things.

And this passage does encourage me to walk blamelessly.

But what does that mean? My understanding is not that we have to be perfect (thank God!), but when we're wrong, we ought to confess and repent. I recently read an article that illustrates this: The Joy of Being Wrong. The author said that when confronted, I have a choice: to seek truth, or to try to prove that I'm right (and my interlocutor wrong).

Being blameless means, I think, to seek truth in those cases. And if some time later I discover that maybe I wasn't seeking truth earlier, to then seek truth in that situation, and so on.

To turn toward the light always, in other words. To walk blamelessly and to seek honor. May the Lord help us to do so.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

We all do it, so don't punish them

The other day, Jack dropped by and we chatted about code quality tools. I mentioned CP-Miner (more), and its ability to detect when programmers introduce errors by copying code from one place, pasting it in another, then incompletely or inconsistently changing variable [etc] names in the destination copy. He thought about it a second and said off-handedly that since we all do it, there is no point in punishing people who do. But we do have to catch such errors and remove them, for the sake of our customers, employees, and shareholders.

I thought this a very important principle -- if everybody makes this sort of mistake, then it's not an exceptional thing; you don't have to be a worse-than-average performer to do it. This reminds me of Deming's “red beads” demo, which is astonishing both because the process is so idiotic, and also because some companies actually do this sort of thing.

Something to keep in mind in the drive for software quality.

The rich man and Lazarus

Here is a parable that seems to make at least two points. The second one I noticed has been a great encouragement to me when I've been involved with evangelism.
19"There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21and longing to eat what fell from the rich man's table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

22"The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried.
Luke 16:19-22
The rich man is in hell, which is apparently separated from Abraham and Lazarus by a great chasm. This I take as the first point: that some who receive bad things in this life will be comforted afterward, and some who receive good things in this life will suffer in the next.

Since I've received many good things in this life (and if you're reading this on your own computer, so have you), this story gives me pause. The rich man apparently did nothing to help Lazarus the beggar, who wasn't even given the crumbs from the table. Now for the second point: the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers to warn them. (Apparently the rich man knew he was culpable.)
29"Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.'

30"'No, father Abraham,' he said, 'but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.'

31"He said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.' "
Luke 16:29-31
The second point, of course, is that evangelism is never just about information or a sufficiently dramatic presentation. Moses and the Prophets had already given sufficient information for this man and his brothers. Why is this an encouragement to me? Because I have often said to myself, "Have I explained that well enough? They didn't seem to get it." So maybe "encouragement" isn't quite the right word, but this really shows the limitations of us as messengers.

And what does that mean for us today in this postmodern society? We still need to explain many foreign concepts, but really it's all up to the Lord.

posted 4/16

Friday, April 13, 2007

The dishonest manager, and us.

Today's reading, from Luke 16, talks about a manager (someone like a bookkeeper or accountant I think) who finds out he's about to be fired. So he calls in his master's debtors and reduces their bills significantly. He hopes that these folks will later welcome him into their homes. Let's pick it up there:
8"The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. 9I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
Luke 16:8-9
This parable never made much sense to me, but when I read it this time, I somehow remembered that not everything in a parable has to mean something. And the key here is that Jesus gives us the meaning in verses 8-9.

So let me try to make sense of this story one more time, starting with verse 9. When might I be welcomed into eternal dwellings? When I'm no longer in this world. And at that time, by the way, my worldly wealth will be "gone" -- or at least no longer under my control.

The manager is about to undergo a transition: in the current state, he has control of some of the master's assets; in the future state, he won't, and he wants to have friends that will welcome him. The line between these these two states, or the event that propels the manager from one state to the other, is the event of getting fired.

We all face a transition, too: the event of dying. Before that time, we have control over some assets. Since the whole world belongs to God, we don't "own" those assets; we have some control over them, but they're really not ours. Afterward, we won't have control over those same assets. At that future time, we will be very interested in eternal dwellings (our earthly ones won't be useful to us).

Here is what I think. I think that the dishonesty is just a device to get the manager fired in the parable. You and I will die even if we're perfectly honest (if we even could be).

So what I take away from this is basically, well, what Jesus said: to give away things in this world, because we know that there is a reward in the next.

Shouldn't we want to help the poor with money and things just because it's the right thing to do, rather than because of a reward? Well, for whatever reason, we should do it. And Jesus is realistic -- he knows most of us respond to incentives. So if you can manage to give away money and things because it's right, that's terrific! You don't need this sermonette. But Jesus addresses those of us who need the incentive: "Use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves..."

A good idea, and counter to our culture which so often seems to tell us "use friends to acquire wealth." True riches, in other words, are friends -- particularly friends who will welcome us into eternal dwellings.

Anyway, as I write this, I suddenly see the connection to verses 10-12. "If you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth," Jesus says, but hold on... what does it mean to handle worldly wealth in a trustworthy manner? It means to use it to gain friends for yourself! It means to recognize that worldly wealth is not for piling up forever, but for accomplishing God's purposes. They are about emulating the dishonest manager.

A staggering thought.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Lost and Found

It was a couple of decades ago at least when I heard an interesting interpretation of the three "lost and found" parables in Luke 15. They appear in today's New Testament reading, so I thought I'd tell you about it. Rather than posting the whole chapter here, though, I thought I'd give the beginning and the end of the chapter, and a few key verses in between.
1Now the tax collectors and "sinners" were all gathering around to hear him. 2But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them." 3Then Jesus told them this parable:
... (story of the shepherd who finds his lost sheep)
6...Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, 'Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.' 7I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
... (story of the woman who finds her lost coin)
9And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, 'Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.' 10In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."
... (story of the father who celebrates when his prodigal son returns)
28"The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. ...
31"'My son,' the father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' "
from Luke 15
So Luke tells us about these parables immediately after he tells us that the religious leaders were speaking contemptuously about Jesus and his tacky (so they thought) friends. I noticed this time that verse 3 says Jesus told them "this parable", not "these parables." And from looking at the three vignettes, it looks like they're trying to convey the same point. Finally, notice the parallel between the Pharisees' attitudes and the attitude of the older brother in verse 28.

OK, so what are the parables about? Is it all about repentance? Well, no. The coin didn't repent; that's not what coins do. The sheep didn't repent; the shepherd had to find it.

Is it about sinners? Nope. The coin isn't a sinner; that's not what coins do. The sheep isn't a sinner; wandering off is what sheep do.

What's in all three stories here is that something was lost (by nature, accident, or rebellion), it's recovered, and the shepherd/owner/father rejoices. And part of what it means to be someone's friend is that when they're happy, you rejoice with them.

Do I want to be God's friend? Then I should rejoice with him when he's happy. There is rejoicing in heaven, Jesus says, when a sinner repents. There is rejoicing in the presence of the angels when a sinner repents. But in the presence of the Pharisees? There is only sneering. They are like the older brother in the last vignette, refusing to celebrate with the father.

"You Pharisees and teachers of the law are no friends of God," Jesus could just as well have said. Which he actually did -- but in a parable. Living thousands of miles away and thousands of years later, this kind of communication isn't nearly as obvious to us as it was to Jesus's hearers.

What can I take from this parable? One takeaway is what the Pharisees should have gotten from this: If something makes God happy, why doesn't it make me happy? Why don't I rejoice at the things that cause God to rejoice?

Another is to look at the two sons -- the older "goody-goody" who really doesn't know and appreciate his father at all, and the younger "prodigal" who also doesn't know or appreciate his father. These are two ways of making the same error (viz., misunderstanding God) -- and the error should be avoided in any case.

How can I know if I'm missing the point with God? I think one way to tell is to take my temperature when I think about God. Do I get a warm feeling, like I have when I visit my parents, knowing that they enjoy seeing me, that they love to give me good things and for me to share my life with them? Or is it the feeling I get when I see flashing red and blue lights in the rear-view mirror?

And when I'm annoyed with something or someone... I can ask myself how this looks through God's eyes. Most of the time -- not all -- my annoyance isn't well-founded, and asking the question changes my perspective.

May God help me -- help us -- to think correctly about him, to agree with him, to see others according to what we know of how he sees them.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Let's be realistic

When I was in high school, trying to find a philosophy of life, I took a political science class at the University of Hawaii. The instructor introduced us to the philosophy of "Baba Ram Dass," and I read his book The Only Dance There Is. The idea of being at peace with the world was very appealing, but something about it rang false. The path to peace, according to this book, was to abandon all desire. Now some desires should be abandoned, but to abandon all of them? If anyone actually did that, who could live with him? I mean, if your husband or wife didn't desire anything -- didn't desire intercourse (social or sexual) with you -- what kind of life would that be? If you had a friend who you could never make happy (because s/he didn't want anything), what kind of friendship would that be? I decided at some point that the goal of becoming completely detached was both unrealistic and undesirable. Life is to be lived and enjoyed, not to be entirely detached from!

In contrast, the Bible is refreshingly down-to-earth it is. Take for example this morning's reading from Luke:
8"When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. 9If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, 'Give this man your seat.' Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. 10But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, 'Friend, move up to a better place.' Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests. 11For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."
Luke 14:8-11
Now some religions or philosophies of life might tell you to abandon the desire to be "honored in the presence of all your fellow guests." Come to think of it, I might tell you that, too. But not Jesus. He recognizes that enjoying such things is part of how we were made. And really, it's a good thing to be enjoyed, like a good meal.

What Jesus teaches us, both by his words and by his example, is the path to getting that good thing, that the way to be "honored in the presence of all your fellow guests" is not to seek it directly, but to humble yourself.

Taking Jesus's remark literally, it appears to be a cagey way to look good. But there's more to it than that.

Because when Jesus came to earth, he lived this out. He took a place of dishonor -- there was no greater dishonor than death by crucifixion -- and, as Paul will tell us later, Jesus was exalted to the highest place.

What a great thing -- to know that our Lord took the place of greatest dishonor for us, and to know that He has a realistic view of us. So you and I can be completely open with him; we needn't and shouldn't pretend to be other than we are, because it is OK with him that we are who we are. And that's good news.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Book of the Law?

One of the first Bible passages I memorized is found in this morning's Old Testament reading, from the book of Joshua:
Do not let this book of the law depart from your mouth, but you must meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do all that it written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success.
Joshua 1:8
I am not sure that anybody in history actually obeyed this injunction, except maybe the author of Psalm 119. Meditating on the law? Like this?
10If the offering is a burnt offering from the flock, from either the sheep or the goats, he is to offer a male without defect. 11He is to slaughter it at the north side of the altar before the Lord, and Aaron's sons the priests shall sprinkle its blood against the altar on all sides. (from Leviticus 1)
I hope not! I wonder if Joshua is mostly talking about the law given in the sermon Moses just finished -- that is, the book of Deuteronomy. Maybe the parts he's really excited about are the parts about mercy and justice and fairness?

Well, I'm not sure exactly what part he's talking about. What I am sure about are these two things:
  1. God wanted to bless his people; and
  2. Their obedience would help #1 to happen.
I believe that since God's character does not change, these two sure things still apply today.

And what strikes me is just this: we don't obey in order to trick God into blessing us; he wants to bless us. And so what I take from this verse today isn't the same thing I took from it when I memorized it back in the late ’70s (which was basically that meditating on the Scriptures is a good idea); what impresses me today is God's generosity -- how he wants to bless us -- and the great respect he shows us by having us take part in it.

Which is, as they say these days, way cool.

A Happy Easter

Easter Sunday is rather a mob scene at our church. The parking lot is full, as are nearby parking lots and on-street parking. If you're patient and don't mind idling your car for a few minutes, you can probably circle, vulture-like, and get a reasonably close spot between services.

We had talked about riding our bicycles, but one of our teens wanted to wear a skirt and no, bicycling in a skirt was a non-starter as far as she was concerned. How long would it take to walk? Too long.

But! If you take about a mile off the walk, by taking the train from Atherton to the Menlo Park station, well, it's only a mile shorter, but it breaks up the walk and you feel like you can do it. So we started off, about 40 minutes before the train was due.

Within the first block, though, I realized that I had forgotten to bring my checkbook. We also had a special envelope for the Easter offering -- a special gift to fund service projects: construction, landscaping, painting at a school for under-resourced children, AIDS caregiver kits, and the like. I ran home, looked (in vain) for the special envelope, found the checkbook, then got on my bicycle. Good thing I did, too, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

We got to church without incident and heard a great sermon on the theme of "the third day." One day, the Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant and put it in the temple of one of their gods; on the second day, their god was fallen down before the Ark, so they righted it. On the third day, their god had its head and hands broken off, and again it was fallen down before the Ark.

Jonah was swallowed by a big fish, and on the third day was spit up onto the beach. And so on throughout the Bible, from Exodus onward. And of course, on the third day, the women went to the tomb, and Jesus's body was not there, and soon afterward, a bunch of terrorized, mostly uneducated, scattered followers of Jesus became this powerful force that turned the world upside-down... all because Jesus was alive on the third day after they killed him.

Anybody could have stopped that movement dead in its tracks by just finding his body, but it was nowhere to be found. "He is not here; he is risen."

What a great message! There was a great "modern hymn," titled In Christ Alone -- sounds like a hymn but was written in this century. The organ postlude was great, too.

We walked over to the Menlo Park Caltrain depot, and the girls' sandal-clad feet were unhappy with the day's walking. I bicycled home, fetched the car, and met them at Atherton.

For dinner, Michelle came over. Carol roasted a lamb leg (for once, somebody else was cooking lamb in our house!) and made lemon squares for dessert. Jenny made some mashed potatoes. I made a spinach salad. Sheri set the table.

We enjoyed our fellowship over dinner. The lamb sure tasted good. So did the lemon squares.

It was a day of joy and celebration and remembrance. I hope yours was, too.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Figured it out. I think?

One day, on a Sabbath, Jesus was in the synagogue and a woman came. She had been paralyzed eighteen years, and Jesus healed her. The synagogue ruler was indignant. "There are six days for work," (he said) "So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath." (Luke 13:14)

Jesus rebukes this synagogue ruler, the people were delighted, and Jesus's opponents were humiliated.

The very next thing Luke tells us about is a pair of parables: one about the mustard seed and the birds, and another about some yeast that got mixed into a large amount of dough. I was always puzzled by these parables, but tonight I think I know what they are about, at least in this account in Luke 13.

What does Luke tell us immediately before the parables? Well, he just finished telling us about the synagogue ruler who was more concerned about Following Rules than he was about God's Love for his People. There's something out of place about this synagogue ruler; his attitude doesn't belong in a place where God's truth and love were supposed to be proclaimed and celebrated. OK, so now let's read the parables:
18Then Jesus asked, "What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? 19It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air perched in its branches."

20Again he asked, "What shall I compare the kingdom of God to? 21It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough."
Luke 13:18-21
It struck me tonight, maybe for the first time, that the birds and the yeast are just like the attitude in this synagogue ruler; they don't belong there. The kingdom of God would probably mean something like "the people of Israel" in the minds of the hearers. Abraham left his father's household with a small band, and they became a nation -- like how the mustard seed is small and becomes a big tree. And there in the tree is a bird (representing deception in the parable of the sower, for example) that doesn't belong.

And this audience would have all kinds of negative associations with yeast. Jesus referred to "the leaven of the Pharisees" (hypocrisy). That doesn't belong in the kingdom of God, either.

Many years ago, someone gave me that explanation of these parables (which I didn't believe; I thought it was about how the Kingdom of God grows and spreads in the world), but I don't think I ever noticed before that the context here in Luke 13 very strongly favors the "bad stuff is mixed into the Kingdom" interpretation.

So what does this mean for you or for me? Well, I can take this as a picture of my own life. What are the "birds" or the "yeast" in my attitudes, my words, my actions? How can I be aware of these things? If Jesus said, "Beware the leaven... which is hypocrisy," how can I be aware, and what can I do?

One of my daughters pointed out that if our feelings, thoughts and actions aren't in sync, it can be for a good motive or a bad one. If I'm putting on a show, for you or even just for myself, then I think that's what hypocrisy is all about.

But if in my heart I'm saying, "I do believe; help my unbelief!" and doing the things that I believe will help my lack of faith, then I think that's something else. I think that's reaching for God, and my overall impression from the Scriptures is: This is a good thing. Reaching for God is a good thing to do, because anyone reaching for God is doing that because God is reaching out for him.

Which is what I want to do today. Lord, help me follow you, whether I feel like it or not. And when I don't feel much like it, please change my heart.


Sunday, April 08, 2007

What's my real motivation?

In today's reading from Luke's gospel, Jesus has a warning for leaders. If you're like me in this, you may be thinking, "Whew! Dodged that one!" But I think that if you're reading this, you're a leader of some kind; there is a group of people where you have influence. You might not have a title like "Pastor" or "Leader" or "Chairman" or "Manager," but you have influence nonetheless. And with the influence comes responsibility.

Golly, I sound like some of my school-teachers. But maybe they were right? Anyway, Jesus has been talking about "the faithful and wise manager, who the master puts in charge of his servants to give them their food allowance" (Luke 12:42), and the reward if in store if he does good. Now here's the warning:
"But suppose the servant says to himself, 'My master is taking a long time in coming,' and he then begins to beat the menservants and maidservants and to eat and drink and get drunk. The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of....
from Luke 12.45-46
... and bad things will happen. We are the servants, menservants, and maidservants, and some of us are given influence over others; we're given the responsibility to feed the sheep.

Now most of us don't beat others with our fists or slap them around, literally -- but then most of us are not in charge of groceries, either. Of course all this is metaphorical. It's a parable, right?

So what does he mean by this? Well, I think we'll see an example of it tomorrow (I peeked), but I think there are a lot of possible applications. Here's one example: Both Jeremiah and Job compare God's words to food. So, do I share the truth of God's word with my fellow-servants? Do I share it in a way that blesses them, that builds them up? Or do I do it as a show-off, in a way that puts them down?

One way is more like feeding them, another way is more like beating them.

And do I pray for people? How do I pray for them? If I pray for them where they can hear me, do I pray in a way that builds them up -- for example do I pray that the Lord will fill them with the knowledge of his will that they might please him in every way, strengthened by his power? Or do I sound like I think them incompetent and in constant need of rescue and handholding?

My motives are, of course, always mixed. Yours probably are, too. But I'll bet that if we ask God to purify our motives, he'll help us. Amen.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Don't tell me the future

Paul Atriedes, the protagonist in Frank Herbert's Dune, sees the future in frightening detail. As he lives out his life -- joining a band of desert-dwelling Fremen, ascending to become the leader of a planet and then the galaxy -- he experiences déjà vu time after time. He often feels trapped in his vision and sometimes tries to escape it by doing something he hasn't "seen".

In today's reading from Deuteronomy, Moses learns the future, too. But Moses doesn't have the same problem as Paul Atriedes, because the Lord doesn't tell him until the end:
16And the Lord said to Moses: "You are about to rest with your fathers, and these people will soon prostitute themselves to the foreign gods of the land they are entering. They will forsake me and break the covenant I made with them.
Deuteronomy 31:16
The Lord goes on to describe the bad things they will do and the worse things that will happen to them, but I think you get the idea.

So when I read this a few years ago, I wrote in the margin, "Why tell Moses now?" I mean, how frustrating would that be? Moses leads these people forty years in the desert, tries to teach them the right way to go, and then the Lord tells him that all his efforts at education and religious instruction basically didn't take.

Why tell him? Why dump that on him? Is he still mad at Moses because of that thing with the rock?

Here's what I think. I think it is a great honor Moses is receiving here; he's sharing in the frustration that Almighty God himself experiences. God is opening his heart to Moses, giving him a taste of what it's like to pour your heart out to your chosen people and yet know that they'll turn away.

Moses is given a great gift, one which I'm not sure I'd want. Well, of course I tell myself I'd want God to reveal his heart to me, but when I think again... would I? The "man of sorrows" experienced a lot of pain; he was well acquainted with grief. How much of that do I want him to share with me? How much, in other words, do I want to share in his sufferings?

Well, I'm conflicted about that. May the Lord make me hunger and thirst for the knowledge of him more than for anything else.

Amen (and I use that word advisedly).

Friday, April 06, 2007

What do you know? What do you have to know?

Yesterday's reading in Deuteronomy included a perplexing verse which I have never understood (and still don't). But here, in the next chapter, is... well, not an explanation of the verse, exactly; it's something that reminds me that curiosity is not always to be satisfied here:
The secret things belong to the Lord, but the things revealed are for us and our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.
Deuteronomy 29:29
Which is not exactly "None of your business" or "You wouldn't understand," but may include some of each. I think there's a little of "No one may see my face and live," too.

So here we are, some three thousand years after Moses, and although some mysteries of the universe are mysterious no longer, many things still are. Gödel's incompleteness theorem shows that some gaps in our mathematics will remain gaps forever. And questions like "Who am I?" and "Who is God?" will never be fully answered in this life.

Is that OK with me? Well, it's not like saying "no" will bring the answers, but saying "yes" can remind me that the universe isn't all about me and about answering my questions. Saying "yes" is in some sense an act of worship, too, because I'm saying I'm willing to obey God, to walk in his ways, even though there are Big Questions that he has not answered completely in a way I can understand.

I don't like to quote this verse or refer to it too often, because there are many questions that will yield to persistent experimentation, research, or meditation. (And although I don't fancy myself much of an intellectual, I certainly do not want to seem or to be anti-intellecutal either!) But some unanswered questions are actually unanswerable; they are mysteries. And in most cases, I do know enough to obey.

I guess you probably do, too. Most of the time.