Tuesday, June 26, 2007


This is a hypothetical story about a hypothetical boy, although some of the statements undoubtedly apply to someone somewhere.

When Joe was a young boy, his parents were preoccupied; they were both professors at the local university, devoted to their work and their students. Oh, they fed Joe and clothed him; they didn't beat him. But they were dutiful and that was about it, or so it seemed -- still seems -- to Joe.

One day, Joe hit a baseball through a neighbor's window. Or maybe he brought home a report card with -- horror of horrors -- a "B-" on it. Or he had a bicycle accident and scraped his knee.

His parents made some remark to the effect that "the trouble with you is you don't pay enough attention" or "you aren't careful enough" or "you're lazy" -- something like this. (If "Joe" were a girl, then some thoughtless remark about her appearance might have come out.)

Why were his parents just dutiful? Why didn't they give Joe the kind of love and affection and affirmation that every child hungers for? Was it because Joe wasn't paying enough attention, wasn't careful enough, was too lazy, fat, stupid, plain or ugly?

No no no no no! A thousand times no! That had nothing to do with it!

The parents were lukewarm, dutiful, etc. because they were, and are, sinners! They are broken, wounded, bent, imperfect. They have fallen and do fall short.

The other thing is that they are only human. They're limited. They aren't God.

But these ideas are painful for Joe, because they mean he has no chance of getting all he wants from them.

What Joe should do at this point, and maybe he actually could do if he has learned about God, is this: He should turn in faith to God -- because only God can fill that void in Joe's heart. Only God has the perfect love described in 1 Corinthians 13. (Parents, friends, lovers -- everyone else will let Joe down eventually, but God promises those who love him that he will never leave them or forsake them.)

But your average Joe doesn't do that; as a young child, his heart is full of folly (Proverbs 22:15). So he comes to this foolish conclusion instead, and clings to it for years: "I can love and affirmation from (parents, friends, lovers, etc.) if I can just _________________." The blank can be filled in with any of

  • be careful enough
  • pay enough attention
  • achieve something noteworthy
  • make myself beautiful enough
  • be smart enough
  • work hard enough
  • pray enough (!)
  • learn enough about the Bible
  • ...etc.
This kind of thinking is deadly because it just reinforces itself:
When something good happens, Joe looks for, and finds, some recent occasion when he paid more attention, or was especially clever, or spent some more time on his hair or whatever, and attributes his good fortune to his efforts. Conversely, when something bad happens, Joe looks for, and finds, some recent occasion when he was (or might have been) a little less attention, or was a little less careful, or spent a little less time on his hair or whatever. Naturally he attributes his bad fortune to his lack of diligence/care/effort.
And besides that, as long as Joe hangs on to this mindset, he can retain the illusion (or "the stubborn insistence") of being in control. Of having the power to get people around him to meet his needs.

It's that, the idea of using people (or God) to make him feel good about himself, that is so harmful to Joe. It colors all his relationships, including of course his relationship to God, because part of Joe is wondering "How can I get this person to give me what I want? How does this person think? How can I create in them a sense of obligation to love me, admire me, affirm me, defer to me, whatever?" So as much as Joe wants to love and bless people, as much as he wants to love and worship God, there's a part of him that also wants to use people and to use God.

Of course, Joe isn't unusual in this. We all love imperfectly and with mixed motives, because we all have unrepented folly in our background.

What can we do? Here's a 30-year plan, which I just made up:

  • Pray Psalm 139:23-24 regularly (Search me, O God, and know my heart. Test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me and lead me in the everlasting way.)
  • Be in a close fellowship group, where someone will feel free to practice Matthew 18:15 on you (If your brother sins, go and reprove him in private. If he listens to you, you have won your brother).
  • Use periods of solitude to reflect and confess (1 John 1:7-9)
  • If you're fortunate to be able to do so, raise children, and do it prayerfully.
Actually I didn't just make that up; I've been doing it for a few years now. So far, it's three steps forward, two steps back.

If I come up with anything else, I'll let you know.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

It's not about tradition

WARNING: this is even more scatter-brained than usual

At the beginning of Fiddler on the Roof, the protagonist Tevye praises tradition, saying
Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.
Tevye was only partially right, but like many of us, that didn't make him unsure.

"Often wrong but rarely in doubt" -- is that an apt description of the human condition vis-á-vis these questions? I'm going to say "Yes", based on this comment from Jesus:
"Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.
Matthew 7:13-14
Jesus also said,
Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?'

Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'
Matthew 7:22-23
Apparently they'll be surprised on that day -- they're wrong but not in doubt.

There are all sorts of reasons why we're this way. For one thing, there is no one universally-accepted unequivocal standard by which to judge answers to this question, so we tend not to sense a credible challenge to whatever folly we happen to be pursuing. Instead, we face an abundance of conflicting advice. Self-proclaimed experts abound. And family, friends, colleagues, celebrities, literature, film, etc., all influence us. There's also a lot of confusion about these questions within the church, not to mention other religions.

But the biggest reason we unquestioningly pursue our folly is that we are sinners. I know; I'm one, too. We all have a natural tendency to turn away from God and to seek meaning elsewhere. We choose goals poorly -- the first one being to find fulfillment apart from God -- and pursue them more or less without question. Some of the things we do actually seem to work.

Here's an example. For many years, the way I chose to feel good about myself was... to be "right". I wanted to know what the rules were, and to follow them well, so as to be above criticism. I hate being criticized. And if I follow the rules more closely and carefully than you do, then I might think to myself that I'm a better person.

Pretty dumb, huh? The goal is completely wrong, but the actions I took in pursuit of that goal... well, they had some positive results. Following the traffic regulations, for example, avoids a whole class of problems. Nothing wrong with that, as far as traffic rules go, anyway.

There are unwritten rules about social interactions, too. Following these rules (which include, but are not limited to, "etiquette") will tend to make those interactions go more smoothly. But will etiquette guarantee good results? Nope. Will it give you or me a deeply satisfying life? Forget it! Will etiquette make you a warm and attractive person? Ha! All it can do is make you correct. Following it will reduce the incidence of certain kinds of unpleasantness all around; this isn't bad, and it isn't trivial, but it has nowhere near the power I had sought. "Love me, I always say 'Please' and 'Thank you'" Or whatever.

A couple of weeks ago, we enjoyed the company of a missionary couple who told us about some of the things they were doing. They work for an outfit focused on specific technical tasks, but in a recent meeting with their team, they asked, "What would it look like if the Kingdom of God were to come to this people?"

What a terrific question! Now what does Headquarters think about this? Well, they're mostly OK with it. I mean, the reason this organization does all those technical tasks is for that purpose. Do we not pray, "(May) thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven"?

Yet there are members of the team who say, "God called me to do this technical task"; they apparently want to limit their activities, and their thoughts, to this technical task.

I certainly can understand that way of thinking; I've felt that way myself at times. "This is what I do, and I do it well," goes the mantra. And "When I run, I feel His pleasure," as Eric Liddell said. And this is a good thing -- no, a very good thing. It is very good for us to exercise our gifts and to do things that God has gifted us to do.

Yet it somehow shortchanges us, and God, to limit ourselves to things we've always done, to look for satisfaction where we've always found it. To limit ourselves to tradition, in other words.

I'm no iconoclast; I think tradition is great. It's just not everything.

Patriarchal society? Bah!

The lovely Carol was reading part of today's reading aloud, and she pointed out something I missed. As I wrote last year,
Elisha the prophet went to Shunem, where a rich but childless woman provides a room for him. She furnishes it with a bed, a table, a chair, and a lamp. He says to her, "You have gone to all this trouble for us. Now what can be done for you? Can we speak on your behalf to the king or the commander of the army?" (2 Kings 4.13)
So what had I missed? That although this was allegedly a partiarchal society, Elisha talks to the woman, not to her husband. It is she that he asks, "What can be done for you?" It is also she who runs to him when her son dies. Indeed, she doesn't even tell her husband what she's up to, but dodges his questions and heads out.

This is a powerful, capable woman, like the one described in Proverbs 31. She is not to be messed with. Sure, she's got her vulnerable points, but anybody who says that the Bible demeans women has surely not encountered this woman.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Guess Who's Coming to Visit

I heard a knock and a whimpering sound. The knocking was from our neighbor Sudeep, and the whimpering from her 12-year-old shepherd mix, Buddy.

"He always makes that noise when he thinks he's going to see a friend," she explained. I lowered my head toward Buddy in greeting, and he gave me a kiss.

Sudeep dropped the leash and Buddy started wandering around, sniffing.

"He's not here any more, Buddy," I said. Duke has been gone over six weeks now, but I still miss him terribly sometimes.

Buddy padded over to the kitchen, then into the den. He followed Carol onto the patio but soon returned.

It's something like a half-mile from Sudeep's and Dave's house over to ours, and Buddy isn't a puppy any more, so I stepped outside to find Duke's old water bowl, the white one with the fake paw-print carved in the bottom. Buddy followed me with some interest. I gave it a rinse, filled it a little over half-way, and set it down in front of the stove. By this time, Buddy had lost interest, so I called him over, making a splashing sound to entice him.

Performing that simple act of service nearly brought tears to my eyes, because I hadn't done it in, well, six weeks, and the one for whom I did it was no longer here to appreciate it.

Thinking back on it, I suppose we could have done more for Duke, but it would have been expensive and miserable and wouldn't have extended his life more than a few weeks.

For some reason that reminded me of a conversation with my father-in-law some years back. I don't remember exactly what it was about, but I remember feeling exasperated with him. I wanted to yell at him: "If you were dying and needed an operation or something, don't you think I'd give you $30,000 to save your life? What the hell is the matter with you anyway?"

When I described this to Carol, she said, "He probably doesn't think you would."

I was amazed and astonished.

Sometimes I think my priorities are messed up because I miss the dog a lot more than I miss my father-in-law. But whereas I would have given my father-in-law $30,000 if needed (that was in 1990 dollars too), I wasn't willing to shell out $10,000 for the dog in 2007. So maybe they're not so messed up after all.

In that way perhaps I'm not unlike Thomas, the so-called doubter. Everybody remembers Thomas as the guy who doubted. But look at this:
Then Thomas (called Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, "Let us also go, that we may die with him."
John 11:16
Whether a man says "I believe" or "I don't believe" or "I will not believe unless", you can find out what he really thinks by watching where his feet go. Yes, Thomas had his moments of doubt -- who among us hasn't? -- but he followed Jesus to Bethany, and then to Jerusalem. His feet, and his wallet, were in the right place, even if he did make that famous comment about not believing unless he saw this and that.

Yep, Thomas is one of my heroes.

Meanwhile, Buddy was disappointed at not finding his friend Duke.

"I wish he were here too, Buddy," I told him. It was so sad, Buddy not knowing where his friend was (though he could smell him everywhere) and us not being able to communicate to him that his old playmate was gone forever.

What would be good news to Buddy? To Sudeep? How about to me?

I think one thing that would be welcome is the knowledge that the love and mutual enjoyment that we shared together will be ours again in the world to come.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

3 quick/easy recipes for a summer dinner party

We just had a late birthday party in honor of the lovely Carol, where several friends told me how great the food was. Since I prepared three of the dishes, I thought I'd tell you about them. Then, if your friends are as nice as mine are, they will also tell you how wonderful your cooking is.

Vegetable stew

... or ratatouille. This is vaguely based on a recipe in the Moosewood Cookbook, but modified to suit what I had on hand (including what I remembered to think about at the farmer's market this morning). I prepared it on the stove top right after lunch, then stuck it in the fridge to serve cold (or cool) at suppertime.

  1. Slice thinly:
    • 1 medium onion
  2. Mince:
    • 2 cloves garlic
    or use the equivalent from prepared minced garlic (the lazy gourmet's friend)
  3. Saute garlic and onions on medium-low heat with
    • some olive oil.
  4. Meanwhile, prepare the other vegetables:
    • 1 bell pepper -- julienne
    • 3-4 Japanese eggplant (the long kind) or 1-2 medium egg-shaped ones -- diced
    • enough zucchini, crooked-neck, or other squash to be about 150% of the volume of the eggplant: sliced 1cm thick
    • tomatoes: 2 medium or large, sliced
    Throw each into the pot as you finish cutting it, stirring after each vegetable
  5. Add:
    • a little black pepper
    • salt -- maybe 1-2 tsp
    • about ½ tsp each marjoram, oregano, basil
    • optional: up to ½ cup red wine
    • VERY optional: a bay leaf (also known as "a waste of time" but some people like them). Actually, forget I mentioned it.
  6. Cover and simmer about 45 minutes on LOW heat.
  7. Transfer to a casserole and refrigerate.

Indirect-heat salmon

This is simplicity itself. Light about 40-50 briquets as usual. When they're covered with ash, move them to either side of your Weber 22" kettle barbecue, leaving a space in the middle -- the "indirect heat" method. Consult your owner's manual for illustrations.

Take a piece of aluminum foil large enough to accommodate your salmon fillet -- in our case this was nearly half a salmon -- and fold the foil up at the edges so as not to lose the juices (oil, mostly) off the edge. Place the salmon, skin-side down (if it has skin) into this foil boat, and put the works in that center section of the grill. Replace the cover on your kettle barbecue. You want it hot but not too hot. After 15 minutes or so, start checking the salmon to see if it's done (or overdone). No need to turn it. Remove it when done and squeeze the juice of ½ lemon over it.

'Soy vey' salmon

This is cooked over direct heat. Basically, after the above indirect-heat fillet is done, you transfer it to the oven (cover with foil if it has to wait a long time), then move all your briquets into a layer (not a pile) to directly heat this next piece of salmon.

What you do is marinate a salmon filet in some bottled "teriyaki" sauce. Of course if you're industrious you can make your own sauce, but this is the easy way. The ideal dish/container is one made for this purpose by the Tupperware folks, but it's hardly essential. I soaked my filet for about a ½ hour.

When your salmon and the coals are ready, put the salmon into a "basket" like this one from grillstuff.com (we got one of these "broiler basket" things from Crate and Barrel). You might want to do this outdoors, because of the dripping sauce.

Place this basket with the fish, skin-side down if your filet has skin, and cover the grill (as much as you can). Wait no more than 5 minutes to check it and probably turn it over. Check 5 minutes after turning.

That's all folks

These recipes are pretty simple and will give you time to relax before the party, instead of looking for dozens of ingredients.

And remember, people come to the party to see you because of who you are, not because you've used very complicated recipes; these recipes here are "good enough" which means they're good enough. So enjoy the party, thank God for every good blessing, and don't stress out.

Luke 10:38-42

Friday, June 15, 2007

To Be a Parent

So I found another place where Kingsolver's dialogue is nearly unbelievable. Taylor is thinking about adopting this little girl, and Mattie offers her an astonishing insight:
"... I think you're asking the wrong question."

"How do you mean?"

"You're asking yourself, Can I give this kid the best possible upbringing and keep her out of harm's way her whole life long? The answer is no, you can't. But nobody else can either...."

"So what's the right thing to ask?"

"Do I want to try? Do I think it would be interesting, maybe even enjoyable in the long run, to share my life with this kid and give her my best effort and maybe, when all's said and done, end up with a good friend."
Kingsolver, The Bean Trees (1988)
Do you see what I mean? Who could come up with that just in conversation? Mattie talks like a book -- like literature, for gosh sakes!

But suspending my disbelief, I think this is a wonderful insight, and a great question for every parent to ask. Most parents never ask that question; parenthood happens to them in a sort of "existence before essence" kind of way -- they don't know what they're getting into until they're already in it.

But asking that question (not in the sense of "You mean I could opt out now? ") and choosing the answer Yes can, I think, put some of the little (and not-so-little) challenges in perspective.

It seems to me that's a helpful exercise, like asking yourself this one:
Knowing what I know now, would I ask him/her to marry me all over again?
and choosing "Yes." This isn't about believing three or twelve "impossible things before breakfast"; rather, it's about commiting my will, making a choice, orienting my body and putting one foot in front of the other.

But back to the original question. Do I want to try, and keep trying? Yes I do! And at this point I am thrilled to be able to say that our daughters are already good friends of ours.

By the way, I mentioned to Sheri that Kingsolver's dialogue seems to me unbelievably beautiful (which I meant literally, as "so beautiful that the dialogue itself is not believable"). She didn't find it unbelievable, but did agree about the beauty of her prose. "I found myself just reading it over again" to enjoy it.

What was it, I thought, that makes this dialogue so unbelievable, whereas Card's Ender and Bean novels (Ender's Game, Ender's Shadow, Speaker for the Dead, etc.) have astonishing insights offered up by absurdly young characters? I decided that by the time I was reading any 13-year-old spouting 50-year-old wisdom, my disbelief had already been so far suspended that this little bit more wasn't out of line.

And to be fair, perhaps it's not Kingsolver's characters that speak incredibly, but rather it's because of my prejudices that I find their remarks prima facie absurd.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Almost forgot

The lovely Carol and Jenny were supposed to return home last night, but their flight was canceled due to weather. So I spent another night alone in bed... then the phone rang at about 3:00am. I didn't get to it in time, but I was fully awake. I ended up going swimming (swam about 900 yards) at the "Y", during which I remembered something about last night's posting on the good news.

I forgot to mention Jesus. Well, I did mention him, but I left him out in my summary of what the good news is. Like fish who forget that they're wet (thanks to Pete for this phrase), I forget how much of my thinking has been shaped by the fact of Jesus's death on the cross and his resurrection. I wrote about it in August, but the thing that makes the good news credible -- I mean, how can I believe that I don't have to be (perfect, the smartest, correcter than thou, whatever)? It's because all the stuff I'm trying to compensate for -- my sin and shortcomings and that sort of thing -- has been paid for by Jesus himself. ...as I wrote in this open letter to an atheist friend.

I think the struggle with the good news is that just about all of us don't fully get it, or don't fully believe it. How would my life be different if I really believed that I didn't have to make up for anything, that all my faults were already paid for? Would I be free to be a better person? What would it take to change me?

The answer: a daily miracle. Lord, fill me with the knowledge of your will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding, that I can life a life worthy of you and please you in every way, bearing fruit in every good work, growing in my knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to your glorious might so that I might have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to God, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in the Kingdom of Light. (from Colossians 1, sorta)


Tuesday, June 12, 2007

What is the good news, anyway?

Let me tell you something, tomato lady. Whatever you want the most, it's going to be the worst thing for you.
Kingsolver, The Bean Trees
Well, that was apropos of nothing, but after writing a few hundred words here pretty much daily for a year, it feels strange not to write anything for a while.

I especially feel the urge to communicate when the lovely Carol is gone. (You couldn't tell I was an introvert, could you? - except that extroverts tend to talk rather than write.) Last night Sheri handed me The Bean Trees and urged me to read it, "Okay, Daddy?" I told her I would. Here's another bit from the book.
“Stop it, would you? Quit making everybody out to be better than you are. I'm just a plain hillbilly from East Jesus Nowhere with this adopted child that everybody keeps telling me is dumb as a box of rocks. I've got nothing on you, girl. I mean it.”
This is just when Taylor (originally, umm, Missy?) is just meeting Lou Ann. Here I've really got to suspend my disbelief, because that prose is so beautiful -- I mean, how could that come out of somebody's mouth unpremeditated?

Well, maybe it's not so ridiculous. There is kindness and compassion as well as some reproof in those four sentences; I guess that's what makes it so beautiful to me and impresses me so much.

What I really wanted to write about this morning was: the good news. Two rows in front of me on this train is a fellow who tries to engage people in conversation on meaningless topics -- like how one train usually waits for the other to arrive but today it isn't, or how doughnuts aren't as healthy as applesauce (he just told two people that same thing maybe a minute apart). Once in a while someone will talk with him but most people give him the minimal response that's not outright rude.

What is the good news? What would be good news if it were true? What would be good news to him? What would be good news to Taylor/Missy, to Lou Ann? Or to you and me?

When I was younger, I thought the good news was something like this:
  • God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.
  • You're off the track but you can get back on -- not by cleaning up your act, but by confessing your sins.
  • The result is that you can be sure of eternity with God in heaven.
Now I don't disbelieve that today, but I wouldn't summarize it like that. Jesus didn't either. Here's what he said at the beginning:
The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent (change your mind) and believe the good news!
Mark 1
The good news has something to do with the "kingdom of God," a concept mostly missing from my version.

When I think of what the Apostle Paul offers as elements of the good news, what comes to mind is some stuff from Acts 17 about how God signaled his renewed engagement with the human race through the resurrection of Jesus (a theme echoed in 1 Corinthians 15), and the stuff in Romans 3 about a new righteousness from God.

As McLaren said in Adventures in Missing the Point, the good news as taught by Jesus was much more about the here and now than about heaven. It really was not all about "pie in the sky bye and bye."

Here, I can prove it: Look at that verse from Mark 1 (Mark 1:15 if memory serves) -- The time is fulfilled -- when is that? It's now! Then: ...the kingdom of God is at hand. Some versions say the kingdom of God is near. That means it's here and soon, not up in the sky! Here and now.

So if that's where and when the Kingdom of God is, the next natural thing to ask is: what is it? And why is it good news?

Here's what I think. There are two kingdoms -- actually there are more, but anyway there are at least two. A kingdom is where people serve and respect the king. The people who heard Jesus knew those words -- they were familiar with kings. Herod was a king. Caesar was a king. Their history was full of kings, good and bad.

Today, particularly in the United States, literal human kings are barely on anybody's radar. What we have instead are taskmasters of one kind or another, goals that we chose some time in the past but have since mastered us.

In my case, the master I chose was the concept of being "correct." Perhaps you've heard the title, Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior? The trouble with being "correct" -- with following a bunch of rules that a few people (or a lot of people) believe in -- is that we start thinking that being "correct" makes us good people. Or if not "good people" then I at least felt good about myself when I fancied myself "correcter than thou".

Being correct, in other words, became a substitute for being good (loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, gentle, compassionate, just, strong, loyal, understanding, clear-eyed, warm, etc.). This is Bad because if I feel good about myself by being "correct," then like the Pharisees and Saducees in Jesus's day, I ignore the other more important things.

The other problem with being "correct" is that nobody can do it. Some can do it better than others, sure, but nobody can actually execute it. Donald Miller mentions in Blue Like Jazz that he tried not to think ill of anyone for a week. Ha! I can tell you right now that it can't be done unless you're in a coma. Here's an even easier one that nobody can do: Refrain for 24 hours from complaining.

If I were in a coma for 23 hours then I might be able to do it, but I wouldn't count on that, either.

So "correctness" is a poor taskmaster.

A variant of correctness is... what would we call it -- reputation?

How many girls from "good Christian families" are bulldozed into getting an abortion because their parents could not stand the embarrassment, the shame, of an illegitimate grandchild? It's not just a few every year, and probably not just a few thousand every year.

What is the Good News to these girls, their parents, legalistic perfectionists (like the one I'm trying not to be), the guy on the train off the end of the "social awkwardness" scale, Lou Ann, Taylor/Missy,...?

I once heard an analogy that I have to explain before I give you my answer. Imagine that in the middle of the night, someone went to a K-Mart and a Neiman-Marcus and switched all the price tags, so that the absurdly priced luxury goods at Neiman-Marcus were priced to move! and the K-Mart goods were priced in hundreds and thousands of dollars.

That is what has happened in our world. The things that we esteem so highly, the ones that have high social or emotional price tags, are actually K-Mart items, and the things we think of as goofy are actually what's really important and valuable.

So having an "important" job -- whether important financially or in "impact" (saving lives or saving souls) or in fame and celebrity -- is actually not worth much, ultimately. What is worth a lot are things that cannot be bought or finagled -- for example being good (loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, gentle, compassionate, just, strong, loyal, understanding, clear-eyed, warm, etc.)

And being who you are, rather than someone you're not -- that's important.

All that is part of the good news, I think.

A friend of mine talked about being very interested in science, but his church sent him the message that to really Be Somebody, to faithfully serve the Lord, he should be a "full time Christian" or something like this. Be a pastor, a counselor, a missionary. That's what you had to do if you wanted to really serve and glorify God.

One key aspect of the good news for him was: You don't have to do that! The psalmist wrote that "The heavens declare the glory of God." How do they do that? By being what they are, rather than what they're not. The heavens don't have to go to seminary or learn Greek, Hebrew, and Chaldean and all that; they glorify God just as they are. You and I can do that too!

Lou Ann doesn't have to ingratiate herself with everyone in order to be who she is. The awkward guy on the train doesn't have to feel inferior because he's always awkward. And if I forget stuff on the train or under a chair at my daughter's graduation, or say the wrong thing, or forget to lock the door -- none of those things will ruin me, make my life worthless, or send me to hell.

That's the good news -- or a big part of it, anyway. That human-made rules and ratings, the bogus price tags that somehow got stuck on everything -- those are not the final arbiters of value. But instead, the right price-tags, the glory of the Lord, His just reign on the earth -- all that stuff is near. The time is fulfilled.

Let us repent then, and believe the good news.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Force? Field?

Don't Panic

This is not an official statement of any organization or entity. It is just a bunch of late night stuff that poured out of my head/fingers.
At our church we have been talking about reaching the lost, and the "field" model just keeps coming up again and again. When I ask about the "force" model, I always get the same reply: We want to do both.

But when we talk about evangelism, we always talk about inviting them to church-sponsored events. We talk about reaching out by opening a campus 10 miles in either direction, by making the services more "seeker-friendly", and so on. The priorities seem thus to be:
  1. field
  2. field
  3. field
  4. field
  5. force, if it doesn't interfere with 1-4
  6. field
  7. field
  8. field
  9. field
  10. field
OK, so maybe I'd better explain what I mean by force vs. field, and no, I don't think that the models preclude each other. But something like 90% of our communications seem to be field-oriented.

What I mean by "field" (and I take this terminology from my no-doubt faulty recollection of Jerry Cook's Love Acceptance & Forgiveness) is that there is real estate and there are hosted events, and ministry happens at hosted events, generally on real estate owned by the church. The focus of evangelism is then to get members to invite their friends and neighbors to a church building or a church event. Ministry happens on campus. Want to expand the ministry, you expand the campus, get multiple campuses, acquire (or rent) more real estate, build more buildings, host more events. The flock invite their friends and neighbors to hear the good news as preached by a professional. The field of ministry then is the church campus (don't take me too literally here), and we want to gather the unreached to the field of ministry so that they can be ministered to.

The "force" model, however, says that ministry to the unreached occurs mainly off campus. Evangelism in the "force" model means: the flock are equipped to tell the gospel, and they do not invite their friends and neighbors to a church event until they have started to follow Christ. What happens on campus is that the saints are equipped for the work of the ministry. No non-christian would possibly be interested in "coming to church" because what happens on campus is equipping, training, strengthening of the flock to do the ministry out there. A "force" church would never ask people to invite neighbors to a worship service; rather, they would talk about what each church member could do to make the gospel available and credible to their neighbors and friends.

I believe that MPPC is firmly in the "field" camp. (bet you couldn't tell.) We've been thinking that way for a long time, a really long time. Frank tells me that a cultural change (e.g., "pro"-led to lay-led) will take ten years, so I expect that a field→force model change would take at least that long.

Everybody talks about evangelism in terms of "inviting someone to church" -- whether it's a café service in Menlo Park or the new campuses 10 miles north or south of us.

Some years ago, Carol and I took a discipleship class at church. Why should the laity make disciples? Because Jesus said so (Matthew 28:19-20). So, I asked, if we think that "make disciples" applies to the laity, then doesn't that mean "baptizing them" also applies to the laity? And "teaching them"?

If I shared the gospel with a friend or neighbor and then we went to the beach and I dunked him in the water and declared him baptized, what would MPPC's position on that be? We have rules about these things, don't we? How about serving communion?

There are political issues that seem tied to our denomination -- these issues force us to think about control by professionals.

Well, it's late so I'll stop here. I don't have the answers, but I sense something's fundamentally missing in our discussion.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Ain't no sunshine...

Are you old enough to remember the rest of that line? The Director in my department can identify songs that I only know vaguely (like I knew "Something's Happening Here" from a CSNY album, but he correctly identified it as being first performed by Buffalo Springfield), so I'm not really, umm, The Old One -- but anyway, the first line is

Ain't no sunshine when she's gone

Well, almost. Though the lovely Carol, and our daughter Jenny, are in New York playing tourist, Sheri is here and we had a pretty good weekend.

Saturday was unremarkable; I shopped successfully at Costco, Cartridge World, Safeway, Supercuts, and the Redwood City Farmers' Market (which I had almost forgotten existed). For lunch I made やきそば (Japanese for "chow mein") with some shrimp, half an onion, and the curry mix that came with the noodles.

Sheri and I left for church about 3:40, first stopping at a friend's house to pick up her bicycle. Sheri did the K-1 thing and I went to the sanctuary -- nearly an hour before the worship service began. After hearing the EOG practiced a couple of times, I dozed a bit. I appreciated Kim's sermon on doubt -- she encouraged us to ask the hard questions, to be honest, and so on. I'm very glad that we're having this sermon series. After church, Sheri and I stopped by J&J for a couple of take-out boxes. I had the rice cooker on a timer. Part of our home group came over about 6:40. With leftovers plus the J&J boxes and the rice, we all ate and were satisfied. This also gave me a chance to show off the girls' artwork (mercifully for Sheri, I pointed out the drawings/paintings after she had left the room). We had a good time catching up with each other, and we had a good time in prayer too.

This morning I decided to make today a "joy" day. I offered bacon and eggs to Sheri and she didn't say no. Sliced up the half-onion left over from yesterday's lunch, then heated up the skillet with some olive oil and started the onions going. Meanwhile I grabbed the microwave bacon tray (at least that's what I call it) and put a few strips on it. Broke three eggs, splashed a little milk into them, then once the onions were done (and a little brown), stirred the eggs in. I felt like a gourmet cook! Sheri grabbed some plates and I took the food to the table. We prayed and she got started while I found my pills and made my coffee. Although we didn't get going too early, we got to church in time for Sheri's K-1 engagement at 9:00. It's her last one until September.

I hung out in front of D-11, and pretty soon people started coming by (I was nearly half an hour early for what's left of Growing Families). We had a lively conversation. It was not all smooth, but there was healing when two people kicked off the discussion by apologizing to each other for remarks made last week. I took notes on the lovely Carol's G4 iBook and shipped them off early this afternoon.

Sheri met me after class, and we drove home. I told her about the class, about some of the healing (and the injury that had preceded it). She agreed that it was a great thing to start off with apologies. I remarked on the weather and asked if she wanted to go to the beach. She was pretty happy about this idea -- she'd take her paints. We'd have to be home by 4:30, though, because some folks were coming over to borrow Fred, our (red) 1986 Toyota Corolla, for a week. This did not turn out to be much of a restriction.

The weather report showed the coast covered with fog (this is June after all) but Coyote Point looked OK. I think this is a rather unappreciated beach on the peninsula. We got there and it was gorgeous. We spread a blanket on the sand, and Sheri took out her acrylics and started painting. It sure was cold! I unpacked a camp chair and faced away from the wind. Even with my windbreaker and hat I was chilly. In under an hour, Sheri had finished the canvas. She wanted to take a few pictures with my old (1973?) Canon SLR -- yes, one with film.

At one point, we noticed that some roses (!) had appeared on the beach, and we took pictures of them. I used the old bargain hp digital camera (about $40 plus a few bucks for a 64Mbyte CF card).

I don't know where the roses came from, but we enjoyed seeing them.
Watching the airplanes land over the bay, I recalled the story of Captain Asoh, a JAL pilot who landed his DC-8 in San Francisco Bay late in the 1960s. When they asked him how he managed to land his DC-8 in perfect alignment with the runway but 1/2 mile short of it (or however far it was), Asoh is supposed to have leaned forward and said, "As you Americans say, Asoh ファックアップ." Sheri found this astonishing.

She also found a bunch of shells, former or current homes of sea creatures, stuck to a sort of post (which was rotting away).

←Guess I'd better show you a picture of that. We took some more pictures with the 35mm camera, including one with a pose mimicking a beach scene in The Karate Kid. That's all you're gonna hear about that one.

We packed up after a while and drove to the other side of the park, where Sheri took a few more pictures. We were back before two. I took a nap, and Sheri read her book (something about pigs, by the author of The Bean Trees) and closed her eyes. She was sleeping when our friends arrived to borrow Fred.

After a while I started dinner. I poured ¼ cup of bourbon and some olive oil over some shrimp, only later thinking to add the minced garlic. These I grilled on the Weber along with an eggplant I'd bought yesterday. Sheri made us a salad and we were set. After dinner, we went to Long's to pick up my Yosemite pictures, some of which were rather silly. The pharmacy was closed (do they close at six on Sundays?) but I did get some soap for the dishwasher. Then to Blockbuster, where we picked up
  • Little Miss Sunshine
    which we watched tonight
  • The Brothers Grimm
  • Rain Man
So although we were missing some members of our "pack" (which reminds me of our beloved dog, who is now over a month gone), we had a pretty good day.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

More on "just atoms"

So I was thinking about this "just atoms" idea, and what the Bible has to say about it. Well, of course you won't find the word "atom" there, but anyway, while waiting for the service to start this evening, I jotted down a few references.
1 Thessalonians 5:23
May your whole spirit, soul, and body be kept blameless...
Genesis 2:7
The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being
Ecclesiastes 3:11
He has set eternity in their hearts
Jeremiah 1:5
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart
That was an interesting exercise, but what occurred to me is that the Bible takes the viewpoint that we are responsible beings with moral choice -- the key message of Genesis 3. We were created to rule (Genesis 1 and 2). There's accountability. If you build a machine and it doesn't do what you want it to, you fix it, you oil it, you redesign it, whatever; you don't punish it, and you don't hold it responsible for its failings.

The Bible assumes we're accountable for our actions... it runs throughout the text. So I'll go ahead and say it: On the question of "are we ‘just atoms&rsquo?" the Bible Just Says No.

Are we "just atoms"?

I think Elton will be speaking on this topic next week in (soon-to-be ex-)Growing Families, but I recently saw the Lucas essay on Minds, Machines and Gödel and wanted to mention that.

Here is what I think. There are some pretty good reasons to reject what I'll call the mechanistic hypothesis (Is that a real phrase? Did I just make it up, or did I remember it from something...?) of the mind. The Lucas paper basically says that a human being can see certain things are true, but that a purely mathematical system must miss certain true but unprovable statements. Or something like that; the Wikipedia article has a better summary than I could give you. The argument is not without its detractors, but it is suggestive of something.

Another argument was in a recent sermon at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church. Pastor John pointed out that we sometimes get thirsty, and it would be odd if there were no such thing as water (the transcript says "it would be off," but that's a typo). Similarly, given the human desire for sexual intimacy, it would be odd if there were no such thing as sex. And the same for meaning. This appears on page 9; as I write this, the transcript is available for free download at http://data.mppc.org/sermon/transcript/070520_jortberg.pdf .

Now 30 years ago, I might have said, "Well, that doesn't prove anything," and, well, it doesn't. But it is suggestive.

I think the best reason to reject the mechanistic hypothesis was the one given by Lewis: " If thought is the undesigned and irrelevant product of cerebral motions, what reason have we to trust it?" I wrote about this the other day at
but essentially if we're saying that mind is "only" atoms in the brain, that it's just a computer, then how can it be trusted? I'd like to consider two cases.

First, if it's undesigned, as the atheistic evolutionists would have us believe, then you can't trust it. Indeed, this whole conversation is nonsense.

The other case, that is, that it was designed by someone, or rather by Someone, then, well, I suppose that's believable. I mean, that God could have designed living beings, with the unique ability to think (unique among collections of atoms I mean).

In other words, if the answer to "Are we just atoms?" is supposed to be "Yes," then the fact that we can even have a coherent conversation on the topic (or any topic!) points very strongly to a Creator. Otherwise, all we have is a "baloney generator" and none of what you or I say is actually sensible. What is sense, if all we have to perceive it is a baloney generator?

I do not think that one can consistently (Gödel again!) hold the two positions that
  1. the mind is only the brain (which in turn is only atoms); and that
  2. God (or someone just like him) did not design us
and still say that anything one believes can actually be trusted to resemble the truth.