Thursday, May 31, 2007

An answered prayer

A few years ago, Yosemite Search and Rescue got us out of a jam when I goofed up big-time on the east bank of the Merced river, near Mirror Meadow. Last weekend, we got to be part of the solution rather than part of a crisis. Here's how I experienced it.

About 5:30 Monday morning, May 28, we left the our hotel in Fish Camp and headed north into Yosemite National Park. Breezing through the south entrance, we arrived at the Taft Point parking area some 45 minutes later, and walked out toward "The Fissures."

These fissures are what they sound like -- cracks in the rocks that widen out to several feet across. You can look through them to the valley floor about 3,000 feet below. One of them has a couple of boulders stuck in it -- very cool.

A few hundred yards beyond The Fissures is Taft Point, with a breathtaking view of the valley. Jenny and Sarah were ahead of Carol and me, and I stopped to take a few pictures. When I arrived at the lookout, Carol was holding what looked like our long lost digital camera. It was the same model, but it wasn't our camera; its owner was a madman from the over-55 set, who was planning to run up Half-Dome Wednesday and walk up it Thursday. Actually he wasn't really a madman. I'll call him "Jack" (as in LaLanne).

Anyway, Carol had taken some pictures of/for Jack, and after he returned for his camera, he told us about an Asian family in the parking lot: an older couple and some young people. The 38-year-old daughter had gone for a walk last night and never came back, he said.

It didn't take much imagination to envision falling off a cliff, or into one of those fissures, in the dark. Jack told us that the family were already there at six that morning, and that a ranger had been out 'til something like two, trying to find "Carolyn." Jack himself had called out her name for the past hour, but no joy.

We walked back to the parking lot after a while. I won't say the trail is poorly marked, but it would be very easy to lose track of it if you were inexperienced, or if the light was bad, or both....

I was in a rush to get to the rest-room at the parking lot, but as I speed-walked, I prayed briefly. "Lord, have mercy on this woman and on her family. May she be safe -- perhaps she found shelter somewhere. Restore her to her family soon I pray."

I unloaded my camera stuff into the car, leaving it unlocked for the girls (a couple hundred yards behind me). I saw the family in the parking lot, but being in a rush I didn't say anything to them. What could I say, really?

When I came out, I saw Jenny on the trail in her tie-dyed T-shirt, walking toward the car. She was waving, and I met her at the car. She said someone had been calling for help from the left of the trail.

"Really?" I asked, starting to get excited. "Male or female?"

It sounded like a woman, she said. "Let's tell the ranger!" (By then, a ranger had arrived and was talking to the family. The Yosemite Search and Rescue crew wouldn't arrive for another few minutes.)

We trotted over to the family's car, and when the ranger turned to me, I said, "Um, my daughter reports someone just off the trail, calling for assistance; sounded like a woman." He said something into his walkie-talkie, shouldered his knapsack, and started walking "cross-country" to the point where the Taft Point trail entered the woods.

Right about then, a round-faced woman in a red jacket, wearing glasses, became visible, right where the ranger was headed. She was by then drinking from one of our Nalgene® 1-liter bottles. We reached her, and the ranger asked, "Are you Carolyn?"

Yes she was. I told her that I'd said a prayer for her. The ranger told his walkie-talkie that he found Carolyn, but I didn't think the family would have heard. So I jogged back to the parking lot.

Flashing a thumbs-up sign, I told them, "It's her and she's fine." The mother gave me a hug.

Anyway, the joy and relief were palpable.

It turned out that at least three of them had gone out together, before sunset. They watched the sunset but there was a minor detail: after sunset, the lighting conditions get a lot worse. Then Carolyn tripped and fell over. She wasn't injured, but they got separated. She was a little disoriented.

She called out many times, she got hoarse, nobody heard. Meanwhile she found a stream and headed upstream. This was just the right thing to do because downstream might have led to a cliff. Meanwhile the ranger, who had been out for a few hours around midnight, was heading downstream (he had a light, though). She heard the ranger (who had a whistle) but she couldn't make herself heard. It all ended well.

Afterwards, I thought, "O me of little faith!" I'd prayed, and maybe I had some faith (maybe just a little), but I was as surprised as anybody else when she actually turned up safe.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Using a blowbag to clear a slow drainpipe

In our kitchen sink, there is a garbage disposal, which grinds stuff up so it can flow down a 2" pipe into a bigger drainpipe and out to the sewer.

The other day, that 2" pipe got clogged, which by itself would be bad enough -- but we have a shower that shares the drainpipe with the kitchen sink, so it backed up, turning the shower floor into an icky awful mess; I will not show you a photo of it. (You're welcome).

My mission, which I chose to accept, was to clear the drainpipe so that the stuff could flow out, rather than into the shower, and to clean up the mess.

The solution

The basic idea was to find the "cleanout" -- a pipe end I could uncap to clean out the drainpipe. I had to uncap it and use a blowbag to flush the obstruction out.

Uncap the cleanout

To find the cleanout, you have to find the 2" (or so) pipe that the kitchen sink drains into. This 2-incher slopes down to reach the bigger drainpipe. In our case, the cleanout is above the point where the 1" (or is it 1½"?) pipe from the kitchen hits the 2" pipe. I'm going to guess that if you google on "cleanout" and "drain" you'll find a useful diagram or two.

So I found the cleanout and tried to unscrew the cap with a pipe wrench:

Trouble was, I couldn't budge it. I tried putting the wrench on the other way and standing on the end. I tried banging on it with a 3-lb. hammer. I got a screwdriver, placed it against one of the bumps on the cap, and whacked it with the hammer. I got a piece of rigid electrical conduit to try to increase my leverage on the pipe wrench, but it wasn't big enough. Nothing seemed to work, until I remembered that I had a hydraulic floor jack:

That actually worked. If you try this at home, by the way, it's a good idea to put a big sign on the kitchen faucet -- that way, nobody will decide to run the water while you're outside (or under the house) struggling with the drainpipe.

If it's been long enough since your latest flood, you won't have a flood of goop fly out of the cleanout when you get it uncapped. If you're under time pressure, best you put a bucket under the cleanout. A big bucket. A tub.

I didn't have that problem this time around, but it has happened before. You'll want to use a bucket that you don't mind soiling.

What is a blowbag?

Here is a picture:

That was taken after it did its work, but here's the story. Its main body is made of some kind of black rubber. At one end is a brass fitting that you attach to the end of a garden hose. At the other end is some kind of flow restrictor. I fed it into the pipe -- making sure to feed it in far enough -- i.e., so that I would flush the goop further down the 2" pipe, rather than up into the shower or back into the kitchen sink.

In my case, that was about 5-7 feet, so to make sure I fed the hose at least ten feet into the drainpipe. Here's another picture:

(actually taken afterwards, as I was pulling it out -- as if you couldn't tell).

Then I turned on the hose full-blast. The blowbag expanded to the diameter of the pipe, then the "exhaust" end of the blowbag sent pulsating jets of water down the drainpipe. This forced accumulated sludge out of the 2" drainpipe into the 4" line that runs into the sewer line under the street (in our case, the alley behind our house).

I used hot water in the hose, but cold is also OK.

I heard the vibrations in the house, and turned off the hose after about a minute. Then I extracted it slowly from the drainpipe.

My next step was to re-cap the drainpipe and test the flow down the kitchen sink. All was good, so I cleaned up the hose, and the shower, changed, and took a shower myself.

Helpful(?) hints

  • Do this job early in the day if possible. There are many reasons why. From the photos above, though, you can see that I didn't take my own advice. I think I learned of the problem after I got home from work in the evening, but didn't want to deal with it until after dinner. Then I conveniently forgot about it until after dark. That was not so convenient.
  • Take a look around the house for cleanouts, and have at least one blowbag of appropriate size on hand before the need arises. Your spouse and your children will think you're a genius. Of course they'll be right!
  • A corollary: Have pipe wrench(es) on hand that are big enough to deal with the cleanouts.
  • Another corollary: If you don't have a floor jack, have a piece of rigid pipe big enough to accommodate the handle of the pipe wrench. Then you can use the pipe as an extension of the pipe wrench handle. A 3-5 foot pipe (insert the entire handle into the pipe if you can!) ought to give you enough leverage to deal with any sewer cleanout. If not, you may have to pry open your wallet and call a plumber.
  • Be really sure, when unscrewing the cap from the cleanout, that you're turning it in the right direction -- i.e., that you're trying to loosen it, not tighten it. Don't ask me how I know.
  • When replacing the cap, be really careful not to cross-thread it. Don't ask me how I know.
  • Use your oldest, dirtiest, ugliest garden hose on the blowbag. For the reason why, take a close look at the photos above. See how icky the hose looks after doing this job?
  • Corollary: Be sure that you don't mind staining whatever clothes you're wearing. Shoes, too.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Connected to Jesus?

Today's New Testament reading puts me in mind of a sermon we heard in Japan. Our pastor said that he used to think the Christian life was like a rechargeable shaver. At a meeting on Sunday morning or afternoon, or Friday evening, or whenever, he would charge up the shaver's battery, and then it would run like great guns -- at least on the same day. Over the next several days, the battery would run down, and the shaver would start sounding old and tired. Then, at the next meeting, it would get charged up again and sound terrific for a day or so.

He illustrated this with his own rechargeable shaver -- he plugged in the charger and the shaver ran great for 10-20 seconds, but then you could hear it slowing down.

He repeated this cycle many times, he said, until he understood that life with God was not supposed to be like that. We aren't supposed to run independently except for occasional recharging sessions, he said; rather, we're supposed to be plugged in, connected to Jesus, all the time.

At this point, he pulled out another shaver, which had no battery. He plugged it in and turned it on; it ran. So long as it was plugged in, it ran; as soon as he pulled the plug, it stopped.

Now of course Jesus didn't mention electric shavers when he talked with his disciples about his connection to them. Rather, he used an analogy they understood immediately: that of a vine (or a trunk) and branches. He is the vine, he said, and he told the disciples:
4Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

5I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. ”
John 15:4-5
So here's the thing: if we want any result to come from our lives, we need to remain in Jesus continually.

What does that mean? I think Jesus gives us a clue a little later on.

"9As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father's commands and remain in his love.
John 15:9-10
I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that the meaning of "remain in me" is really close to "remain in my love", if it's not the exact same thing. To walk in the way of Jesus, to follow his commands -- that seems to be what we chiefly need.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

vague East-Asian chicken

I made up this recipe today. My girls loved it, so I thought I'd try to tell you about it.
  1. Cut up
    • a chicken.
    I toss the giblets, the back, and the wing tips (I mean, I toss the tips of the wings; I'm not giving you footwear fashion advice). Some people cut the chicken into like 16 pieces, but basically cut it up however you like. You don't need the skin (your cardiologist will thank me) but don't obsess over it.
  2. Brown it in a little vegetable oil on medium heat, turning occasionally.
  3. Meanwhile cut up
    • a few (1-3) green onions.
    I like slicing 'em up really small, but do what's right in your own eyes.
  4. Add
    • 1-2 Tbsp soy sauce
    to the chicken and reduce heat to medium or medium-low.
  5. Add
    • the green onions you cut up in step #3;
    • 1 tsp minced garlic (from a jar if you have one, or mince 2 cloves if you don't);
    • 1/2 tsp fresh minced ginger (from a jar if you have one);
    • 1 Tbsp Chinese/Japanese/Korean sesame oil.
  6. Optional: You can add
    • a small can of bamboo shoots, rinsed and cut up
    here if you like.
  7. Continue stirring until the ingredients are well distributed.
  8. Add
    • ¼ cup saké
    then cover and reduce heat to low.
  9. Optional: You can add
    • ½ block of tofu, cut into 2cm (or whatever size you prefer) cubes
    if you like at this point
  10. Simmer at least another 5 minutes but not more than 20-30, stirring occasionally.
This dish is not really time-critical. I mean, it's not like a stir-fry that's best served up as soon as it's done.

What is Steven Pinker?

In last week's sermon (transcript) our pastor started a series on Faith and Doubt. He mentioned several books -- The God Delusion by Dawkins, God Is not Great by Hitchens -- and mentioned that a friend of his doesn't read this sort of thing for fear it'll injure his faith. I don't tend to read this sort of thing either, but for a different reason: the idiotic arguments made by supposedly intelligent people tend to make me mad -- especially since I used to say some of the same stoopid things, and I guess I feel a little ashamed of them. Also, I don't want to encourage them by giving them royalties. I pick some of these things up and I feel like yelling at the author or throwing the book across the room. Usually I manage to control myself, though.

Our pastor also mentioned Steven Pinker, who says that there really isn't anyone behind your interlocutor's eyes; a human being is just a biochemical machine.

I was having dinner with a friend the other night, and he asked me what evidence Pinker gives for this idea. I really couldn't remember, so I picked up my copy of The Blank Slate (which I bought used a few years ago), and succeeded in not throwing it across the room.

Basically Pinker attacks Cartesian dualism (body vs soul, mind vs brain) by drawing connections between the physical and mental, or between biology and culture -- the idea being that if you can bridge that gap, you've bridged 'em all, I guess. This is all in Pinker's chapter 3.

One bridge is "cognitive science" -- he writes about AI, and about Deep Thought's beating Kasparov in 1997.

The second is neuroscience -- "the evidence is overwhelming that every aspect of our mental lives depends entirely on physiological events in the tissues of the brain" (p.41), he says, citing Phineas Gage's accident that permanently altered his personality. He also cites observations made by Gazzaniga and Sperry on patients whose corpus callosum (which joins the two hemispheres of the cerebrum) is cut. They found that

...each hemisphere can exercise free will without the other one's advice or consent. Even more disconcertingly, the left hemisphere constantly weaves a coherent but false account of the behavior chosen without its knowledge by the right. For example, if an experimenter flashes the command "WALK" to the right hemisphere... the person will comply with the request and begin to walk out of the room. But when the person (specifically the person's left hemisphere) is asked why he just got up, he will say, in all sincerity, "To get a Coke" — rather than "I don't really know" or "The urge just came over me" ....

The spooky part is that we have no reason to think that the baloney-generator in the patient's left hemisphere is behaving any differently from ours as we make sense of the inclinations emanating from the rest of our brains. the conscious mind — the self or soul — is a spin doctor, not the commander in chief.

Pinker, The Blank Slate
(New York: Viking, 2002), p.43
The problem with this line of reasoning is precisely this: how do we know that the "baloney-generator" is not active as I read Pinker's words? Or, as Lewis wrote, "If thought is the undesigned and irrelevant product of cerebral motions, what reason have we to trust it? Today we might say "electrochemical reactions," but a purely mechanical explanation for intelligent thought is just as dumb an idea as it was in the early 1940s.

Does this Harvard/MIT psychology professor really not understand what any Stanford philosophy sophomore does -- that by impugning the rational capabilities of the human brain in general, he casts doubt upon his own arguments -- indeed, all arguments?

Pinker draws at least a couple more bridges between the mental and physical worlds, or between biology and culture. I do not dispute that there are connections, but his conclusion -- that there is no one behind blue eyes -- is a bit much.

Here's how I see it. Pinker will not imagine that a morally-responsible agent could be mediated by imperfect biochemical mechanisms, and therefore he insists that no such agent can exist. If we take the definition of "religion" offered by some wags, viz., "believing something you know isn't true," then I'll assert that Pinker's position on this point is religious.

Why? Because he has had intimate relationships, and you can't do that while believing that there's no one behind those eyes. Nobody can consistently hold the position that humans are ultimately just biochemical machines and live his life that way -- well, maybe some can, but we lock them up. I am not willing to believe that Pinker is so diabolical and deceptive and downright evil that he would seduce women while not actually believing in them. He may not believe as I do about their immortal souls, but it's unimaginable that he thinks of women as mere biochemical machines, or that they think he looks at them in that way.

No, it's far more reasonable to believe that Pinker is in many ways like I am, or like you are. We all have blind spots; we all deceive ourselves in little and not-so-little ways. He holds people accountable for their actions, because he knows (when he's not writing books) that the auto mechanic, the cop, the secretary, the waiter, his wife or girlfriend, and so on really are people -- that when he looks into their eyes, he's looking at someone's eyes, not just at some biochemical super-robot's visual sensors.

OK, I've been repeating myself for some time now; time to stop and make dinner.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Last night

Last night, I looked at the clock. "Ten o'clock!" I said. "No wonder I'm so tired." Flossed and brushed my teeth, and fell into bed, lying on my left side so as to keep an eye on the lovely Carol, once she arrived. I closed my eyes briefly.

Pretty soon she climbed into bed beside me and turned on the headboard light. She pulled out a book. "I'm going to read something to help me set my mind on the Spirit," she said. "The mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace."

I love it when she quotes the Bible to me -- I think it's so sexy. That was Romans 8:6 I think.

But in this case I wasn't really paying attention; I was admiring the shape of her leg and remembering how it felt. I closed my eyes again.

She smirked at me. "You don't care about setting your mind on the Spirit?" she said.

In response, I reached over and touched her leg, setting my mind on her flesh. Then I threw a pillow at her.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

The best days of my life were almost behind me

Got off the train yesterday afternoon and rode my bike down Oak Grove. Approaching the intersection with Middlefield, I saw that the light had just turned green. I don't know why I was in such a hurry -- maybe I was in my "car" mentality (you know, just press the gas pedal a little and you can probably make it...) -- but I looked behind me and saw that there was plenty of room for me to move into the left-turn lane.

By the time I got to the intersection, I was maybe 25 yards behind the last car that had gone through the intersection, so I knew the light was about to turn red. Why I didn't notice the oncoming car I have no idea.

We both approached the intersection and I almost did it -- almost put myself in the path of that car. Its driver jammed on the brakes at just about the time I swerved back into my lane. I think she was hurrying to make the light, too.

We passed without further incident -- I turned left behind that car -- and I felt like an idiot.

Haste makes waste -- could have made a lot of waste. I could have been injured or worse, traffic would have been tied up there for hours, Sheri would have called and not found me home and ... I thanked God for waking me up in time to avoid a personal disaster.

I have a book about home wiring that has this helpful reminder:

Think! Stay alive!

That's something I need to remember, especially on a bicycle.

On a not completely unrelated topic, I sometimes find myself thinking about things enjoyed in the past.
Some old cynics say that youth is wasted on the young. I don't quite agree, because as an "old guy" (yeah right) I wouldn't use the blessings of youth any more intelligently than I did back then. In other words, any fountain of youth would be squandered just as well by the old as by the young.
I think of watching my children grow up, how they needed me to help them, teach them things, cook for them. To be brutally honest, their needs made me feel important and worthwhile, and as they grow up and need me less and less, I tend to feel less significant, less worthy of the air I breathe.

Two things occurred to me as I mused on this last night, and one more as I wrote this.
  • Who provided the joy and blessing that came through my children? Children are a blessing from... from the Lord (Psalm 127), right? How likely is it that the Lord will stop giving? -!- (that was the sound of my hand hitting my forehead)
  • Even if the days ahead are less enjoyable than the days past (which is by no means a certain truth), what is life about? Is life really about What Makes Me Feel Good? That is a childish way of thinking; it is, to steal a line from Out of the Silent Planet, "cubs' talk."
  • And the thing that occurred to me as I wrote the previous paragraph was: idolatry. If the thing that makes me feel worthy is that my kids need me, then they constitute an idol in my life. Gaaaa! There's another slap-the-forehead moment.
Well, thank God that he accepts me in my folly and forgetfulness. This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

The reprieve is over

I wrote the other day about my dog's problems. After I wrote that, my wife and children took the dog to one of his favorite places for a walk. He lifted his leg on a plant and... watered it! Oh joy!

They called the vet and canceled his euthanasia appointment for that afternoon. He greeted me with joy Thursday evening. Friday passed uneventfully. He took his pills. I did not see him urinate but he did not seem uncomfortable. Saturday he wasn't feeling very well. I watched him carefully and I did not see him pee at all -- all he could do was strain.

He took his medication but needed a lot of encouragement. I said something about how I didn't want to do the catheterization again, and as soon as he heard the "C" word, he went and hid in the corner. We could hardly get him to eat anything.

This morning, I took him out the gate and he headed left; we usually go to the right, but seeing as this was his last walk, I let him go where he wanted. We walked a few blocks and then turned around. I kept hoping and praying that he could manage to pee on something -- or on nothing even -- so he could live a few more days without being so miserable. But it was not to be.

Our schedules this morning were kinda disparate -- the girls were sleeping when Carol and I left for a meeting; they were gone by the time we got back. I called the veterinary office and wept as I told the receptionist about Duke's downhill slide. She asked if I wanted to come right away and I said yes.

I asked Duke if he wanted to go for a ride. He did, but he wasn't nearly as enthusiastic as he usually is -- was. I took him to the vet's office, turning on "Car Talk" for a while so I could stop crying long enough to see where I was going. I parked the car and took Duke over to where some plants were. I almost went over to the "No Dogs Allowed" area, thinking maybe the vibes over by the tomato plants might somehow stimulate him to pee on them. But I had actually given up -- or resigned myself.

They were, of course, expecting us. The receptionist left us in room#1 and gave me a Kleenex box. A tech came in, and she talked with me to make sure this was what I wanted to do. She explained how this all worked, and I signed the form. The doctor came in -- she had seen Duke last Sunday -- and I held Duke's head in my lap. "You won't feel uncomfortable any more," I told him, feeling like I was betraying him even as I said it. The doctor gave him the required drugs and in a few seconds his breathing, and his heart, stopped.

I cried like a baby -- no I didn't. A baby has no concept of losing a companion of nearly eight years, one who grew up with his children -- a faithful if quirky guardian of his house and family. A baby doesn't make the decision to end the life of a friend like that, and a baby cannot anticipate the grief and pain of the days ahead.

A baby does not know that dreams will come in the nights ahead, dreams of the departed friend that end -- and then the awful realization that the friend really has not come back, that he is gone forever.

No, I didn't cry like a baby.

And that's not how I'm crying now.

Believe what today?

I love it when I see something new in a Bible passage, especially when it's one I've read many times before. That happened again in the story of the royal official, whose son lay sick in Capernaum:
49The royal official said, "Sir, come down before my child dies."

50Jesus replied, "You may go. Your son will live."

The man took Jesus at his word and departed. 51While he was still on the way, his servants met him with the news that his boy was living. 52When he inquired as to the time when his son got better, they said to him, "The fever left him yesterday at the seventh hour." 53Then the father realized that this was the exact time at which Jesus had said to him, "Your son will live." So he and all his household believed.
John 4:49-53
The son recovered at the same time Jesus told the man "Your son will live." Something else happened at that exact time, or very close to it: The man took Jesus at his word and departed.

It wasn't just that Jesus said so; it was also that the man believed him. The letter to the Hebrews, talking about some others, says, "... the message they heard did not benefit them, because it did not unite with faith in the hearers" (Hebrews 4:2). But the royal official, in taking Jesus at his word, and also in heading home, combined his own faith with the words he heard from Jesus, and the result was healing for his son and eternal life for him and "all his household."

Here's something I want to believe today: that God will fill us with joy in his presence, with eternal pleasures at his right hand.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Who ruined her life?

There's a verse in Proverbs that says, "A man's own folly ruins his life, but his heart rages against the Lord." I think it's in chapter 19. That's not today's reading, but it's what came to mind when I read the first chapter of Ruth.

Perhaps I'm being unfair, but here's the deal. Naomi, her husband Elimelech, and her two sons leave the land of Israel and go to the land of Moab. Her husband dies, her sons marry women of Moab, and then they die too -- this last after living in the land of Moab about ten years. Eventually Naomi returns to Israel -- to Bethlehem actually, accompanied by her son's widow Ruth.
19So the two women went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they arrived in Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them, and the women exclaimed, "Can this be Naomi?"

20"Don't call me Naomi," she told them. "Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter.
Ruth 1:19-20
So I checked the text, and didn't see where it says "The Almighty killed Elimelech" (or anybody else) in this chapter. Why is any of this God's fault?

I did notice this, though: that Naomi, Elimelech, Mahlon, and Kilion all went to live in the land of Moab, where they were not supposed to go. Perhaps they had an excuse for going (there had been a famine in Israel), but to stay there ten years?

And it's for darned sure that Israelite men were not to marry Moabite women. So Naomi's husband and sons all violated very clear, explicit commands from God -- and these were not like the "Do not covet" one that's just about impossible; these were "Live in the land I give you" and "Do not marry foreign women".

So yes, I think Naomi is being a little silly. And by the way, in case your Bible doesn't have convenient footnotes to explain this, "Naomi" means "pleasant" whereas "Mara" means "bitter" -- in case that wasn't evident from the text.

A long time ago, I read Peck's book, The Road Less Traveled, which talks about two kinds of problems people have. One, neurosis, can be characterized as saying "it's my fault" basically all the time. Its twin, character disorder, is just the opposite -- never taking responsibility for problems at all.

I once worked with a guy like this. He never made a mistake; t was always someone else's fault. If he said something that wasn't so, his reasoning wasn't wrong; he was misinformed. This sort of thing. He was actually quite sharp, so his work was pretty good. But the character disorder made him a little harder to work with than he had to be.

Anyway, in this passage I see two errors that I want to try to avoid. First, I don't want to blame God unreasonably. Naomi blames God because her husband and sons are dead. What, were they supposed to live forever? They were disobedient -- I'm going to go out on a limb and say they were all disobedient -- in going to Moab, staying there over ten years, and for the sons, marrying foreign women. They're disobedient the way you and I are disobedient. We're all deserving of immediate destruction, and she's upset because she didn't get killed earlier? May the Lord help me not to blame him when he's more merciful to one person than another!

Second, I don't ever want to forget the blessings I've received. Yes, Naomi lost her husband and her sons. I cannot imagine how hard that was for her. But she does have Ruth, who wants to stick with her. (Why did Naomi try to send her away, anyway? That might be the third significant error that I want to avoid -- don't send people away who want to help me!)

So I pray that for you and for me -- may we take responsibility rather than blaming God; may we not lose sight of our blessings; may we not send away people who God has given to comfort and help us.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Running open-loop

I used to work with a professional pessimist. Really. Well, mostly. One of his sayings was, "guaranteed to be broken." He would say this about any device that wasn't tested or testable.

Some argued that he was too pessimistic, but he invoked an illustration something like this:
This mechanism pulls the rods out of the nuclear reactor to prevent a meltdown. Are you telling me it's safe to run the reactor without ever testing this mechanism?
Well, of course it isn't. Now what would happen if a group of people -- a tribe, or a whole country -- wasn't controlled? If there were no "adult supervision"? Golding provided one answer in his classic Lord of the Flies. A similar, older answer comes from the closing chapters of the book of Judges.

In those last few chapters, we see this phrase repeatedly: "In those days Israel had no king" (Judges 19:1). And some atrocity follows: violence (including unprovoked attacks and mass murder), theft, lack of hospitality, idolatry, and so on.

I really don't want to tell you what happened in chapter 19; you'll have to read it yourself. But Israel's other eleven tribes were appalled by what the tribe of Benjamin did, and there was a battle. 22,000 died on the first day, 18,000 on the second, and over 25,000 on the third.

Over 65,000 soldiers died, and the text does not tell us how many civilians.

Without some sort of revelation, some "adult supervision", the natural trajectory of man is not "three steps forward, two steps back"; it's more like five or ten steps backward with an occasional step forward if we're lucky. That's what happens when we run open-loop.

Which makes me think that the very existence of civilization constitutes evidence of God's intervention in history. And when I read the news, I'm glad that he has intervened.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

What's a snake have to do with it?

Today's New Testament reading has perhaps the most famous verse in the whole Bible; probably millions can recite it from memory. But the verse begins with "For", as in "For God so loved the world..." But what is that "For" about? Here it is, with the immediately preceding sentence (from the NIV):
14Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. 16For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.
John 3:14-16
So, verse 16 talks about the extent of God's love for the world. But that's not the main point of the passage; it's there in support of the previous sentence, which says basically that Jesus has to be lifted up -- like the snake in the desert. So what is that about? Well, that incident was one of those truly bizarre things.

There were venomous snakes attacking the Israelites and they came to Moses for help.
8The Lord said to Moses, "Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live." 9So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived.
Numbers 21:8-9
The passage in Numbers has more detail about that incident, but the point here is that when you're bitten by a snake, if you look at the bronze snake, you'll live. Otherwise you'll die.

Moses lifted up the snake so the people could see it. Jesus had to be lifted up -- symbolically I think. Why symbolically? Well, the story with the snake in the desert was that you had to look at it so you could live physically -- if not, your heart would stop. The story with Jesus is that you have to believe in him so that you can live eternally -- if not, you would perish.

In order to look at the snake, it had to be lifted up -- so it could be seen optically. In order to believe in Jesus, he has to be made, well, famous I guess -- so people could hear about him.

Well, that was interesting (well, OK, it was interesting to me), but ultimately the point is that God is going through all this stuff because of his great love. (The next verse, John 3:17, continues on this theme, explaining that God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn it, but to save it.) And that when Jesus did things that made himself known, it wasn't like the kind of self promotion that people like us would do; it wasn't to get a bunch of glory for himself. Rather, it was so that God could save the world through him.

There's a man focused on the mission, and motivated by an amazing love. Which is good news for you and me.

Bad day

My dog has been unable to pee for some days now. There was a growth... which turns out to have been caused by prostate cancer. They suspected it last week, and we got the definitive diagnosis yesterday afternoon. This sort of thing is apparently fairly common in large dogs.

They put a urinary catheter in him Sunday. After a few times, they gave us supplies to do it at home. That did not work, so yesterday they stuck one in permanently, sutured it to him, and put one of those cone/bonnet things around his neck. The vets said that they shouldn't put another catheter into him; if he couldn't pee naturally by Friday, that would be the end.

I came home and saw him. He looked so pitiful and unhappy. "I wish he didn't have cancer," I tried to say, but couldn't get it out without weeping. I can't even type it now without tearing up.

Well, we drained his bladder last night -- he was very uncomfortable. And I couldn't get the "plug" back in, so he dripped all night.

This morning, he somehow managed to circumvent the bonnet thing. The catheter was lying on the floor. I scolded him mildly and took the bonnet thing off him. Then I took him for a walk. He tried to mark a few trees, but nothing was forthcoming. He enjoyed it anyway.

Unless something extraordinary happens, the vet will euthanize him this afternoon.

"Silly dog," I said. "You shouldn't have pulled that catheter out. It was the last one."

Sorry, I just had to wipe my face again.

Well, he enjoyed his walk. He didn't have to wear the bonnet. That foreign object - the urinary catheter is out. The sun is shining and the sky is blue.

For him, it is a good day to die. For us, it will never be a good day to lose him.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Perplexing passages

Some stories in the Bible frankly baffle me. Today's Old Testament reading has one; it's from the book of Judges. You may know the story of Samson, who was astonishingly strong and had really quick reflexes. His character was flawed, but that didn't stop God from using him.

Eventually, he fell in love (or in lust) with Delilah, who badgered him into revealing the secret of his strength: it was related to his vows as a Nazirite. Samson should never touch anything dead (though he did that on at least a few occasions), never eat grapes or drink wine, never cut his hair. This is the baffling part: he had already broken the Nazirite vows -- when he ate honey from the carcass of a lion, and when he slew a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of a donkey (it of course was dead, too). But his strength didn't leave him until he got his hair cut.
21Then the Philistines seized him, gouged out his eyes and took him down to Gaza. Binding him with bronze shackles, they set him to grinding in the prison. 22But the hair on his head began to grow again after it had been shaved.
Judges 16:21-22
After his hair grew back, his strength returned. What is God telling us in this passage? That it's all about the hair? That if you take a 3-part vow, it's not really broken until you break 2/3 of them? It's opaque to me.

Yet there are things I can learn from this:
  • power of one kind (physical or intellectual for example) doesn't guarantee power of another kind (self-control or moral fortitude).
  • Weakness of one kind (unruly passions) can destroy effectiveness of a strength (brain or muscle power)
  • You never can tell what God is going to do (really this is just saying the future is unknowable).
I think the point for me is to be watchful in times of success.

And another

The other story in today's reading that perplexes me is from the New Testament, where Jesus turns water into wine. You can read about it in John chapter 2. At the end, they take the wine to the master of the banquet,
9and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside 10and said, "Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now."
John 2:9-10
So this suggests that, contrary to what some people say about wine in the Bible (that it had no alcohol) is probably not true. Notice, too, that Jesus created some of this stuff (probably not de-alcoholized).

But what to make of "you have saved the best till now"? When Jesus turned water into wine, he didn't make "Two Buck Chuck"; he turned it into some really good stuff. But what does that mean for you and me? Here are a few possibilities:
  • When God makes something (or someone), he does not make junk.
    That may be true in general, but I don't think we can count on that in all cases. The Bible itself talks about animals with defects. What about the man who was born blind? Were his eyes (or optic nerves or something) not broken at birth?

  • God is astonishingly generous -- extravagant, even.
    The water which was turned into wine was in "six stone jars... each holding from twenty to thirty gallons" (John 2:6). 5 bottles/gallon, 4 cases/jar... this is over 24 cases of wine. I think this one is also a valid conclusion.

  • God's plan was perfect, but sin and disease and corruption entered the world afterwards.
    I'm not sure this verse quite proves that, but one might reasonably conclude that based on other parts of the Bible.

  • Good Christian businessmen should never produce goods for the low end of the market.
    In other words, the makers of "Two Buck Chuck" are sinners? I don't think so.

  • Good Christians should try to produce the best work possible, as Jesus did.
    People of a certain personality type might think so, but I wouldn't necessarily agree with that statement as it stands. I mean, Jesus produced the best wine that was drunk that day, but does that mean that a Christian who makes wine should do everything possible to produce the best wine in the world? The proverbs tell us that diligence is good, and that it's bad to be slack in one's work. But always trying to be the best? I don't see that here.
People sometimes justify their perfectionism (or workaholism) with verses like this, which to me just seems wrong.

No, rather than that, I think the points are more like these: that the world wasn't supposed to be full of disease and corruption and suffering. Thousands of children aren't supposed to be orphaned daily by AIDS/HIV. Bridges aren't supposed to collapse because of defective construction. Neighborhoods and subdivisions aren't supposed to be terrorized by gangs of criminals.

And that our God is generous and extravagant; he's created a world filled with beautiful things, and given us the capacity to derive great joy from them.

revised 5/3

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

What do you want?

John (who was baptizing everybody) pointed Jesus out to some of his disciples.
36When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, "Look, the Lamb of God!" 37When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus.

38Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, "What do you want?"

They said, "Rabbi" (which means Teacher), "where are you staying?"

39"Come," he replied, "and you will see." So they went and saw where he was staying, and spent that day with him. It was about the tenth hour.
John 1:37-39
I love this passage! "What do you want?" Jesus asks. Notice how the disciples don't answer him exactly. They imply that they want to see his apartment, but of course that's not really what they want.

Well, at least they didn't say, "Uh, is there a Shell station around here?"

What do they want? I think they want to see what's going to happen next. I mean, they've been following John, who then says, "There's the guy I've been sent to prepare the way for." John also said that Jesus "has surpassed me." With that kind of endorsement, which of John's disciples wouldn't want to see what would happen next?

But we know that both Jesus and John will be dead within a few years of this incident. John actually makes Jesus's death quite plain to his disciples; in verse 29 he said, "Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!"

How does a lamb take away sins? Lambs don't carry much meaning for us today, but the disciples would know, as any Jew of the time would: lambs get sacrificed. They die. Their blood atones for sin.

So when John said, "the lamb of God," the disciples would know right away that Jesus would die to "take away the sins of the world." And when Jesus said, "What do you want?" they might have wanted to know how this was going to work out. But they probably didn't want to say, "We want to see how you're going to die, umm, we mean, how you're going to take away the sins of the world."

Well, they got a whole lot more than they imagined. What an exciting time it was for them!

And it makes me think: if Jesus were to come to me today and ask, "What do you want?" -- what would I say? What do I want from God today, this week, this month? What do you want?

Not that we'll necessarily get what we want, but I think it's probably a good thing to know what we want, and to ask God about it. I suspect that he may be more willing to give than we are willing to ask.

These two disciples ended up asking to spend time with Jesus. I suppose that's one thing I might like, too. I don't mean praying and hoping someone's listening that I can't see, and listening and hoping someone speaks to me (but not generally in an audible voice); I mean talking with him like these guys did.

And I believe that this desire will be satisfied, that one day, that day when we see him as he is, we will be able to talk with him and hear his loving words.

And won't that be something!