Sunday, February 28, 2010

Do you think ethics are relative?

You've heard people say it -- there are no moral absolutes, just moral preferences. Or that we can't legislate morality, this sort of thing.

It astonishes me that people can believe this sort of thing -- I guess you could if you don't think very hard or you haven't met anyone who does this for a living:

We go into a village and find young girls, maybe 14 years old. Often there isn't enough to eat in these villages, so we tell a girl's parents that we can train her for work in a factory in the city; with her wages she can feed her entire family and have some left over.

We have no trouble recruiting lots of girls for this. We have a nice car and we give them nice smiles. But once we get them a few miles away from the village, we drug them. They wake up in the basement, where we "break them in" by beating them with rods, electrical cords, and plastic pipes. We don't want to mark them up too much.

After three days and nights, they understand that they have no hope; they know they're entirely in our power. Then we put them in windowless rooms where they can make us lots of money. 30 men a day, 7 days a week.

As long as there are hungry villagers, we have no trouble getting lots of girls.

Do you know anyone who actually thinks that morals are just preferences, that there are no absolutes? I'm guessing that they've never encountered human trafficking.

Because the story above is true. I've made up the personality of the kidnapper, but the experience of being lured by someone in a nice car, getting drugged, beaten, and subjected to slavery in a brothel is, I'm afraid, not an isolated incident. And I'm sorry to say this, but I cannot understand how people living in today's world can say that there are no moral absolutes.

The idea of moral relativism is a pretty little theory beaten up by an ugly bunch of facts -- only the latest of which is this awful truth that there are millions upon millions of human slaves today. Some are in brothels, some are in brick factories, some are domestic slaves here in the United States.

What does God think about all this? He doesn't think morals are relative. And he cares very much about the poor and oppressed. Here's what the psalmist wrote:

Rise up, O Judge of the earth;
       pay back to the proud what they deserve.

How long will the wicked, O LORD,
       how long will the wicked be jubilant?

They pour out arrogant words;
       all the evildoers are full of boasting.

They crush your people, O LORD;
       they oppress your inheritance.

They slay the widow and the alien;
       they murder the fatherless.

They say, "The LORD does not see;
       the God of Jacob pays no heed."

Take heed, you senseless ones among the people;
       you fools, when will you become wise?

Does he who implanted the ear not hear?
       Does he who formed the eye not see?

Does he who disciplines nations not punish?
       Does he who teaches man lack knowledge?

The LORD knows the thoughts of man;
       he knows that they are futile.

Blessed is the man you discipline, O LORD,
       the man you teach from your law;

you grant him relief from days of trouble,
       till a pit is dug for the wicked.

For the LORD will not reject his people;
       he will never forsake his inheritance.

Judgment will again be founded on righteousness,
       and all the upright in heart will follow it.

Hooray for the Martinez Police Department!

Heard about this credit card scam: device attached to gas pumps at service stations; it takes credit card info for later pickup by identity thieves.

Clever, but they made two mistakes: First, they got too greedy; second, they messed with the Martinez PD. Here's one summary: with comments. Here's a Contra Costa Times article too. Good stuff!

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Keys to Spiritual Growth

Earlier version posted 21 Feb 2010 8:50AM; this version revises item #3 in the list below
What do you and I do to grow spiritually? We go to Bible studies, we attend worship services, we do service projects; we pray and memorize Scripture.

How's that working? Are we more loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, etc., than we were last year? Do we have a clearer sense that our sins are washed away? Do we forgive others more easily? Or do we just know more about the Bible?

Getting more specific, which of our activities contribute to our growth? What makes each one more (or less) effective in nurturing spiritual growth?

These are Hard Questions. And they want answers: if not universally, then at least for me in my situation. If I'm leading a small group, I need to know if part of our meetings are a waste of everyone's time, and which parts if so, in order to stop doing them. If I'm involved in any decisions about what we do in worship services, I need a sense of what activities are useful to people.

And even if I'm not, I need an idea of which activities are more and less helpful because something is going to happen that'll interrupt my life -- whether it's something wonderful like my children visiting or something irritating like my computer breaking. When that happens, what activities should I give up? What should I make sure to keep doing?

These questions would be a lot easier to answer if we could gauge spiritual growth with some sort of instant-read spiritual growth-o-meter. A yardstick or scale would be great, a blood-pressure gauge, though less convenient, could still give us immediate feedback. I'd even be willing to take a drop of blood from my fingertip.

wind-swept tree from

All that's silly, though, because for the most part it takes a while for this sort of growth to be visible, like the effect of wind blowing on a tree: from one week to the next -- or one year to the next -- we can hardly see the difference. But over a few decades it's quite clear something's been happening. (The photo is from

Sure, once in a while we might experience a dramatic change -- like the day I decided to follow Jesus and call him "Lord" (or "Boss" or "King"). But at least for me the typical scenario is more like this: 20 years after I became aware of being impatient and sort of edgy, someone told me I was patient and kind and accepting.

Nice to see some progress, I tell myself. But which practices helped me? What habits exposed me to the Lord's grace? What, in other words, did God use to change me?

Maybe this is a cop-out, but I don't think we'll find a scientific, mathematical, engineering kind of answer. My approximate answer would include (in no particular order):

  1. Exposure to godly men and women, and I don't mean just seeing video clips -- I mean knowing how they make decisions, what they struggle with, how they trusted God. This isn't limited to pastors and conference speakers; I include "ordinary" brothers and sisters who walk the walk, who take steps of faith and bet their lives on God's promises. The idea here is to emulate the twelve, who were with Jesus (Mark 3:14). I hope this isn't a proof-text, but if I can't see Jesus in the flesh, I want to be near people who are like him.

    I think of a family that sold everything and moved overseas to encounter debilitating illness; they moved back to the US, recovered, and continued serving. Or someone whose spouse went to seminary then deserted the family and the faith; the remaining parent trusts God, avoids bitterness, raises the kids in the nurture and instruction of the Lord.

  2. Reading and studying the Scriptures, with the aim of applying them to my life. (1 Thessalonians 2:13 says that the word of God's message performs its work in us.) Sometimes this means developing an "obvious" application from a verse like "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her" (Ephesians 5:25).

    But it can also mean taking an insight and changing the way I think -- I read in Ephesians 4:29, "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouth..." and looked up the word translated "unwholesome" (what does that mean, anyway?). As it turns out, this word connotes speech that is intrinsically rotten, as distinct from something innocent but easily misunderstood. When I learned this, it hit me that some of my speech really was unwholesome, and I had to think about why it was that way.

  3. Taking a step of obedience, even if we don't always feel like it. This is sometimes called "acting «as if»." There's classic advice for husbands who don't feel in love any more: act as if you were. Ephesians 5 doesn't command a certain kind of feeling; it commands a husband to act in a loving manner toward his wife, to give her a high position on his list of priorities, to sacrifice himself for her. If a husband doesn't feel that way, that's OK! He doesn't have to feel that way; he just has to do it. And the good news is that by doing those things -- going out of his way to bless her, behaving affectionately toward her, really attending to her needs, those deeds become more pleasant to the husband; the feelings will sometimes follow.
    NOTE: While this may be good and important for husbands, there's a danger in applying this advice inappropriately, as one may become a hypocrite -- if I act for example as though I'm more committed to a task or cause or organization than I actually am.

    If there is a command from God (as there is for husbands to love their wives) we should obey it in faith; if there's a promise from God (such as one finds in John 3:16 or John 5:24), then we should apply our faith to it, and acting «as if» may be appropriate. If I'm not sure I have the faith for it, but I'm willing to take a step of obedience, that's great.

    But absent a promise or a command of the Lord, acting «as if» may bring trouble.

    It's important when trying to do this that we have a correct understanding of what the Scriptures (and thus the Lord) are telling us what to do. If we look at James 1:2, "Count it all joy when you meet various trials" and we think it means we ought to deny our honest feelings or turn a blind eye toward our own limitations (see under "Confession" below), we're also headed for trouble.

    We can do this with steps of faith, whether we're just starting out or have been following Jesus for some time. A classic piece of advice, if one isn't sure about Jesus, is to act as if we believe him. If we know a little about how Jesus wants us to approach life, we can "pretend" that we think it's a good idea. In other words, do it! If we're not sure Jesus is listening but we'd like to believe it, then go ahead and call out to him when we want guidance or mercy or whatever. And so on. When I take a step in the direction I know God wants me to go, he'll show up for me.

    Following another promise from God, Isaiah 58:10 says that if we extend ourselves on behalf of the needy, then he will make our gloom like the noonday and do all kinds of other good stuff for us. I remember a time when I was feeling depressed, I think a girl had dumped me or something, and this guy gave me that passage. I didn't appreciate it very much, but I did what it suggested and it actually worked for me; reaching out and serving somebody did lift me out of my self-pity. It did more than that, actually; as Isaiah says, all kinds of rewards came out of that.

  4. Embracing mediocrity. John Ortberg reports that according various experts, it takes some 36 hours a day to "get by" in the areas of physical exercise, career development, eating, sleeping, and so on. So there is no way to get all As or even all Bs; we need to choose a C-minus here and there, or we'll end up with an F somewhere else. Nobody says on his deathbed, "I wish I'd spent more time at the office" (attributed to Tsongas, Iacocca, and maybe others). More on this here.
  5. Confession. This doesn't necessarily mean going to a church official in a booth, or even another mortal, but when I go astray ("accidentally" or on purpose) I need to agree with God that I've been wrong. This doesn't come naturally, as my usual tendency is to think of an excuse for my badness. But really, it's better to be forgiven than excused.

    I want to combine this with some previous items and say that as we try to take those steps of faith, as Clint Eastwood said, "A man's got to know his limitations." So for example if I think it's important to think daily about God or his word, how will I do that? Do I think I can just remember? I don't know about you, but that doesn't come naturally to me. I need a plan of some kind, and the easier the better. I used to have people who would always ask me what verse I'd memorized lately. This brings its own set of problems, but "I stopped memorizing Scripture" was not one of them.

    So I know a young lady who writes a word or phrase on her hand; when she sees it during the day it reminds her of something. It might be simply "Mt 5:6" or "God loves you", something like this.

    In a completely different direction, there once was a young preacher named William. He worked with a small group of young men, and he promised them in the early days of the ministry that he would never be alone with a woman other than his wife. They all promised the same thing. Did they miss some opportunities for ministry that way? Probably. Did they avoid an entire class of problems? Absolutely!

  6. Destroying the power of idols, which we do by taking steps of faith and obedience. More about this is in a 2006 blog post, but the short version is: if I'm too concerned about money, one way to reduce anxiety is with the defiant act of giving some to the poor, which I already knew God wanted me to do. And so on for time, "success," reputation, etc.

    This is counterintuitive; it's more natural to serve idols than to defy them. But as with Marines under fire, the counterintuitive thing is the only way to make progress.

Monday, February 22, 2010

What is the Fruit of the Spirit about?

Yesterday after breakfast, the lovely Carol wanted to look at Galatians 5:16-25 with me. She has a copy of John Stott's study guide, and we worked through some of his questions together. You may recall that Galatians 5:22-23 talks about the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, and so on); many Sunday School children memorize this list, though of course it takes a lifetime for the fruit to be fully formed in us.

We don't usually memorize the other, contrasting list (the works of the flesh), and I don't know that we always have the big picture in view when we think of the fruit of the Spirit. Here's the passage:

16So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. 18But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.

19The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

22But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.

Galatians 5:16-25 NIV
(with "sinful nature" ⇒ "flesh")
So here are a few comments.
  • The passage begins with "So I say..." which suggests that we came in part-way through his discourse. More on this later.
  • The way to overcome the flesh isn't to just "try harder," but to live by the Spirit (see verse 25).
  • Christians have an inner conflict between the flesh and the Spirit. This helps explain Paul's struggle in Romans 7 for example, as well as the struggles we have trying to live the Christian life daily.
  • For some reason, "led by the Spirit" (verse 18) is in the passive voice -- we can't just do this but we must somehow surrender or something. And in verse 24, it says we who belong to Jesus have crucified the flesh -- this is the active voice. What does the contrast mean? Why is one passive and the other active? I hope you'll let me know.
  • Our study guide pointed out that the acts of the flesh seem to be divided into four areas (the NIV editors helpfully put semicolons between groups):
    • sex (v.19: immorality, impurity...)
    • religion (v.20: idolatry and witchcraft)
    • society (vv.20-21: hatred, discord.. factions and envy)
    • drink (v.21: drunkenness, orgies and the like)
    I think the study guide asked us to comment on these areas, and it occurred to us that abuse of sex and alcohol is a poor attempt to overcome personal alienation, whereas abuse of religion (in this case magic) and society is a poor way to overcome feelings of powerlessness. I think of all these as ways of taking control. (Even alcohol abuse is an attempt to control our perceptions of reality, or at least to suppress or conquer unpleasant parts of it. Not very effective, but it might feel good for a short while.)
  • In contrast, the fruit of the Spirit have to do with humility and surrender. We overcome alienation by love and peace and gentleness. We overcome powerlessness by rejecting the desire to control; rather we seek to be mastered by the Lord: we aim to be led by the Spirit.
When we see some truth in the Scriptures, it's sometimes useful to do the dialectic thing -- to say "If this is the truth, what is the lie that we'd otherwise be tempted to follow?" I never noticed this before, but it seems to me that this passage really has a lot to do with control, and with who's master. Are we trying to master reality, our feelings, others? Or are we seeking to be mastered by the Lord, to be led by the Spirit?

Now verse 16 began with "So I say..."; let's zoom out a little on the chapter:

13You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another in love. 14The entire law is summed up in a single command: "Love your neighbor as yourself." 15If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. 16So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.
-----insert 17-24 here-----
25Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.
Galatians 5:13-26 NIV
Verses 13-14 warn against one kind of selfishness (poor attempts to overcome alienation) and verses 15 and 26 warn us against another (poor attempts to overcome powerlessness); these concerns "bookend" this passage about the fruit of the Spirit.

I found this really interesting, because I hadn't noticed before the connection between selfishness (of various kinds) and the deeds of the flesh -- more to the point, it hadn't occurred to me that we could think of the fruit of the Spirit as being largely the antidote to selfishness.

This makes a certain amount of sense, because as I understand the way this is supposed to work, the Spirit's job is to lead us into a right relationship to God and to Jesus (that is, the Spirit leads us to the Father and the Son; he doesn't really draw a lot of attention to himself). If I'm right about this, the fruit of the Spirit would be the power to surrender(!), and thereby to overcome selfishness and discord. And he will certainly finish his work, and we will someday be perfect, as the Lord wants us to be. Now that's good news!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

How to Memorize Scripture

Have you ever had this experience?
After a sermon, my friend said, "I'm not sure I believe that..."

I replied, "There's a verse about that, actually Jesus told a whole parable..." and I pulled out my pocket New Testament. "It's in Luke 15 I think, or was it Matthew 15?" I muttered. "Something 15, anyway" I kept flipping. "Maybe Luke 14..." etc.

Don't you hate that? The scenario came up when I gave an abbreviated version of this posting. Given a concordance, a topical Bible (or an online equivalent) you can look them up at home, but it's nice to have them available without a computer or your library. The Bible is also available for portable electronic devices like smart phones or a Palm Pilot, if you have the device or discretionary cash (I hope you've already given generously for relief, evangelism, development, and your local church).

But if you don't -- and even if you do -- here's what I suggest: Scripture memory! Shortly after finding Jesus, I memorized five short passages (1-2 verses each) that the Navigators called "Beginning with Christ". This commentary by LeRoy Eims gives and explains the verses. I think the version I memorized was the New International (NIV), which really was new at the time (late 1970s). Anyway, from there I memorized the 60 verses of the Topical Memory System, which was a great start.

If you follow that path, which isn't a bad one, you'll memorize some important verses on a variety of topics. The verses come pre-printed on small cards, and you can buy or make a little pack to carry them around in -- to review while riding the bus or waiting for traffic lights for example. This saves the conundrum of what to memorize next, and the bother of writing them down yourself. And if you have poor penmanship, they also save the trouble of decoding your scribbles. An example card is at right.

The other thing is they come with some helpful instructions, like saying the reference before and after you repeat the verse. This helps your brain to keep the reference (Galatians 6:9-10) together with the text of the verse ("And let us not lose heart..."). The cards are also printed that way, as you can see.

What's the downside? Well, you memorize the verses they thought were important, which might not be the verses that the Holy Spirit has been speaking to you about. Also, if you're not finding the verses yourself, you might forget to look at the context. And to tell the truth, I think the Navs sometimes don't have the point of the verse right. Prayer, for example, is the topic at the top of the card for John 15:7: "If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish and it will be done for you." But is this verse about prayer? If you just memorize the card and don't think about what came in John 15:3-4 or John 15:5-6 or John 15:8, well, it's still a great thing to memorize John 15:7. But much better to understand this verse as part of his message about abiding (as the King James says) and bearing fruit: having a life that means something. The way I read 15:7 is this:

If you're really "plugged in" to me 24/7, not trying to run on your own power, is that your life will be meaningful, like a tree heavy with fruit. Part of that is your prayers will be in line with what I'm doing in the world, and you'll naturally ask for what I'm already doing -- then you'll see it happen!

So although I think the pre-printed cards are great for getting started in Scripture memory, I'm not sure I'd recommend going much beyond the 60 verses in the TMS. The Topical Memory System can help you get into the habit: memorize two new verses a week for 6-7 months. Every day review the 12 verses you most recently learned, as well as 12 others (rotate this latter set through all the verses you have memorized, which is easy at first). But if you look at the verses in the TMS and decide they aren't what you're really excited about, I'd go for the gusto and make up some of your own. The one at right was from the 1980s, when I memorized most of Ephesians chapter 1 (thus the ellipsis), which is a great chapter by the way; I highly recommend it.

That's what I know about Scripture memory. And a true confession: I don't do the daily review any more. Got lazy I guess. I should take that up again -- maybe for Lent?

Saturday, February 20, 2010

ubuntulinux + printer...

Some time back, I gave up on getting ubuntu 9.04 (64-bit) running on this nice-looking amd64 box my buddy gave me. Instead, I ran something like it on an old Dell lease-return. Long story short, I found myself trying the 32-bit version of ubuntu 9.04 on this 64-bit box. It seems more stable; I suspect a defect in the 64-bit-specific agpgart code.

This works quite well for the "generic" case -- I tried partitioning the disk myself, which just put me in a world of hurt. Just use the whole disk and life is good. That was a week or two back, and astonishingly enough today was my first attempt to print.

Printing took a bit of googling and head-scratching, because

System → Administration → Printing 
gave me a window with the "New" button grayed out. Some website advised me to enable CUPS in
System → Administration → Services 
but it was already turned on. Eventually I tried the suggestion shown in this answer, viz., connecting to http://localhost:631/. This gave me a "No can do" sort of message, which
$ netstat -tln
confirmed for me. The answer was simple:
collin@p64:~$ /etc/init.d/cups status
Status of Common Unix Printing System: cupsd is not running but /var/run/cups/ exists.
collin@p64:~$ sudo /etc/init.d/cups start
[sudo] password for collin: 
 * Starting Common Unix Printing System: cupsd                           [ OK ] 
collin@p64:~$ /etc/init.d/cups status
Status of Common Unix Printing System: cupsd is running.
Now port 631 was open, so I went for the gusto and did the System→Administration→Printing; lo and behold, the "New" button was active; the rest was a piece of cake.

Turns out that if I had just scrolled down a bit, this exact answer would have turned up.

Back to taxes now.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Avoiding death

These lines from an old Christmas song came to mind while thinking about Hebrews 2:
Mild he lays his glory by
Born that man no more may die.
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
That hymn, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, is one of the earliest songs I remember from church services I attended as a child. The line I remembered from childhood,
God and sinners reconciled!
never made sense to me until I understood, over a decade later, why it was that Jesus came to earth.

But what I want to talk about today is this line: Born that man no more may die. I often translate this mentally to " more need die", which I think is what the original wording actually means, viz., that you and I now have the option to skip death.

Here is the part of Hebrews that brought this to mind:

But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
Hebrews 2:9
I take "for everyone" here mean "in everyone's place" (that is, everyone who wants that). Otherwise why would this bring "glory and honor" to Jesus? Paul is explicit about this idea:
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death--even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,...
from Philippians 2:5,8-10

Now what kind of death is supposedly optional? Church graveyards are full of dead bones, right? Well, the Lord Jesus Christ talked a lot about eternal life, contrasting it with condemnation, for example:

"I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life."
John 5:24
When Jesus meets Mary outside Bethany and discusses the fate of her brother Lazarus...
Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?"
John 11:25-26
And of course, God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him will not perish (i.e., no one need perish) but have eternal life (John 3:16).

So the good news for today is that Jesus tasted death for you and for me and for everyone who believes (according to the Lord's words) and he is now crowned with glory and honor.

Mild he lays his glory by
Born that man no more may die.
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
Hark! The herald angels sing,
Glory to the newborn King!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Drifting away

The lovely Carol gave me a present yesterday morning -- a copy of NurtureShock, where I read about an experiment with "gratitude journals." Apparently, "those who kept gratitude journals on a weekly basis exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week compared to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events."

The effect of gratitude journals, as a way of paying attention, came to mind when I thought about this passage from the beginning of Hebrews 2:

We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.
Another thing that struck me from this verse was the idea of drifting away. When I think about Mark Sanford, Tiger Woods, Eliot Spitzer or Bill Clinton for that matter, I don't think any of them woke up one morning thinking, "Today I'll torpedo both my marriage and my career." What I believe happened is that they drifted away; they weren't paying quite enough attention.

For that matter, if we think about the chief priests, scribes and Pharisees who plotted against Jesus, what were they thinking? "Today, instead of following truth and following the Lord, I'll focus on my career and my perqs and maintaining the status quo. Even if my God raises somebody from the dead, I'm bound and determined to put my career first, and God had better not send any pesky prophets to turn me away; I'll just kill them, as my ancestors did"?

I don't think so; I think they drifted away too. How do we avoid their fate? Here's a thought -- by paying careful attention (Hebrews 2:1).

  • Though the author of Hebrews wasn't talking about this, the aforementioned gratitude journals are a terrific idea. Every so often, write down some things you're thankful for. Don't do it every day, or it'll be tiring and you'll be tempted to write the same things down all the time.

    Remember to thank the Source, too!

  • " what we have heard," which refers to salvation and the world to come. To me this means at least two things. First, as Jesus said, "The kingdom of God is at hand" (Mark 1:15). What this is about: following and obeying the Lord (that's what "Lord" means). When I head off to work, do I think at all about what the Lord wants me to do? I hope so. Because there are challenges and temptations, among them
    • impatience
    • selfishness
    • envy and greed
    • apathy
    and if I don't pay attention then I might fall (or jump) into them.

    Another aspect of the gospel is our destination in the world to come. If I'm heading for heaven in the future, if my citizenship is in heaven and I remember that... what does that say about who I am and how I should be today? When our family lived in Japan, we were aware that we were Americans, foreigners. We knew we were different, and though we lived there nearly six years, we knew we were coming back someday. We cared about our neighbors and neighborhood, we paid our taxes (to both Japan and the US tax offices, very complicated), but we never became Japanese.

    What's that mean, practically? Should be be so heavenly minded that we're no earthly good? On the contrary -- if we're too earthly minded, we won't have any idea of heaven, and "thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven" won't mean anything to us. As Peter says, since we're heaven-bound, and since we know this earth is only temporary, we ought to live holy and godly lives (2 Peter 3). Mostly I think we know what that means: living lives worthy of our true homeland. Something to keep in mind.

So in the days and weeks ahead, I plan to pay careful attention to these eternal things: God's amazing love, the atoning sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ, our heavenly homeland and destination.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Fiorina talking jobs?

I was astonished to read recently that Carly Fiorina was talking about creating jobs. This is part of her run for the US Senate.

I have a hard time with this concept. You see, I was at hp from 1976 until 2002. That was the year that Carly's objective of laying off some 17,000 people was realized.

The main point of having hp merge with compaq was to eliminate those thousands of positions. I would like to know why people think Carly knows how to create jobs, especially given her record of destroying thousands of them at hp.

She was a lousy chief executive, too, jetting around doing PR without ensuring someone was minding the store. But perhaps that wasn't entirely her fault; she was a marketeer from a fiber-optic outfit trying to be the CEO of a Silicon Valley icon. Maybe if the senate job is easier or smaller or more focused she'd be OK at it. Oh, and if the mission involves PR and laying people off, as distinct from doing something substantive and creating jobs.

So I don't get it. But clearly I'm out of step; this is the state that elected Arnold as governor.

Update: I wrote to Carly about this

The lovely Carol saw this post and said I wasn't taking into account Carly's conversion since that time. So I wrote a note to the email address on the website:
Date: Sun, 14 Feb 2010 08:31:11 -0800

As a former HP employee (laid off along with at least 15000 others in 2002) I would like to understand if you regret the decision to merge hp with compaq. I have a very hard time understanding how you can talk about job creation when the stated reason for that merger was to eliminate positions -- i.e., destroy jobs rather than create them.

My wife tells me that you've decided since then to follow Jesus, which is a wonderful thing. But as far as running for the US senate on a platform of job /creation/, I would like to know what your current feeling is about the things you did while at hp, and also what experience you've had actually creating jobs rather than destroying them.

Collin Park
I'll be pleasantly surprised if I get a serious reply.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Now that’s good news!

I've been reading Hebrews chapter 2, which opens with this rhetorical device:
We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?
Which I might paraphrase as: "You thought the Torah was big? It was, but this is huge!"

As it turns out, I do think the Torah was big. Huge, actually. I was thinking about this the other day, and the beauty and power of Genesis 1 overwhelmed me. I didn't quite start weeping in public, but this story was truly Good News for Modern Man (back when "Modern" meant 12th century BC). I mean, I can't express what good news it must have been to these people to hear the astonishing outrageous truth that God created us by fiat (not by killing some other being), and that he created us to rule with him. I mean he gave us a new name -- regent, not robotic slave. That was amazing good news! It makes me think of 1 John 3:1 -- "Behold what manner of love the Father has given unto us that we should be called children of God." Wow! What could be better than that?

And now the author of Hebrews is telling us that this salvation, whatever it is, is even bigger than all that. It must be huge! And I guess it is. Peter tells us that even angels long to look into these things (1 Peter 1:12), and Paul says, "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him" (1 Corinthians 2:9).

It makes me think that God was looking forward to blessing humankind, preparing a present for us and anticipating the joy of giving us the great good news, a present even greater than the gift of a new name given to us in Genesis 1. Words fail me, but I can enjoy thinking about His goodness.

How Not to Read Genesis 1

The library had a copy of James L. Kugel's book, How to Read the Bible; so far I've read chapters 1, 2, and 36. Chapter 1 of course introduces the book, and the author -- very important for this particular book. Professor Kugel belongs to a group that conservative readers of the Bible sometimes call "source critics," because he believes that the source of the Pentateuch (Genesis – Deuteronomy) wasn't Moses. Instead, it was supposedly written by as many as five different authors, who took a bunch of content from extra-biblical literature. To be fair to Professor Kugel, he acknowledges the subtext behind some of these critics' statements, viz., the assumption that knowledge of future events is a priori impossible.

But Kugel isn't just a source critic; he believes that Holy Scriptures were divinely inspired, and that we can find a lesson for today in these ancient texts. He keeps the Sabbath (as currently defined by Orthodox rabbis), the dietary laws, etc. He doesn't walk around on the Temple mount (the rabbis say one might accidentally step where the Most Holy Place was).

I don't understand how to make sense of this; if the text isn't what it says it is -- if these words were not actually given to Moses, if the Israelites weren't actually delivered from their Egyptian slavemasters and didn't really wander 40 years in the desert -- how can anything of it be trusted? Perhaps I'm too simple-minded?

In chapter 36, Kugel wraps up the book, but not all the questions. He's unwilling to let go of his belief in divine inspiration of the Scriptures, but neither will he abandon what he considers the assured results of higher criticism.

The lovely Carol asked what I was reading, and I explained some of what this professor said about the Documentary Hypothesis. She wasn't too happy about this, wondering if I was going to start believing this stuff. Here's how I'd summarize her concern: if Moses didn't write the Pentateuch, if it in fact had been written over 700 years later, then Jesus didn't know what he was talking about in John 5:46-47, when he identified Moses a the author. If the book of Isaiah wasn't written by Isaiah but by someone else, then John didn't know what he was talking about when he identified chapters 6 and 53 as being written by the same author in John 12:38-41. And if Jesus and John can't be trusted with matters of simple fact, how can we trust them when they talk about matters of sin and judgment and eternal life?

So as you can probably tell, I actually believe John and Jesus; I think they knew more about the Bible than "source critics" do. But I do want to understand what these guys are saying, at least to some extent. And Kugel himself piques my curiosity, being the combination of source critic and Orthodox believer.

Here's what I found in chapter two of his book: there are two stories about creation -- one in Genesis 1:1-2:3 and the other starting in (you guessed it) Genesis 2:4. Differences in the stories, plus the use of the name usually rendered "Lord" in English translations -- which appears in chapters 2-3 but not in chapter 1 -- supposedly add up to at least two different authors:

  • the "P" writer for Genesis 1:1-2:3, as this story provides background for the Sabbath, a Priestly concern; and
  • the "J" author, since the Hebrew word rendered Lord is written in German with a "J", and this name appears starting in Genesis 2:4.
Now I don't want to caricature this theory -- well, maybe I do. Look, the Apostle Paul refers to us as children of God (Romans 8:16) and also as sons of God (Galatians 3:26-28). With tongue firmly planted in cheek, I will therefore claim that the Apostle Paul didn't write both these passages. Heck, I'll claim that he didn't even write all of Romans (see for example 8:13-15)! Instead, I'll say that what we call "the Pauline epistles" were actually written by two sources, one I'll call "C" (the writer who uses the word translated "child") and the other I'll call "S" (for the word translated "son").

My "theory" of multiple authorship based on Paul's use of "child" versus "son" is, of course, pure baloney -- that is to say, I am making this up. It's far more likely that, as some commentators have said, the word translated "child" is used when the author wants to emphasize the fact of birth whereas the word "son" is used to emphasize the relationship with God.

Returning now to the creation stories in Genesis, the reader may observe that the sun and moon aren't mentioned until the fourth day. What could be going on there? Here are a few possibilities:

  1. The author was a fool who didn't understand that without a sun you can't have day and night;
  2. The author was trying to be oblique or mysterious; "day" meant a much longer period of time, not determined by the sun (but -- "there was morning and there was evening, a second day.")
  3. The account isn't chronological.
I'm going with #3: this isn't chronological, as I've described elsewhere. In fact, as I understand it, Genesis 1 is a polemic against the dominant creation myth of the day, the "Enuma Elish".

If this is so, then the point of Genesis 1 -- viz., to refute the creation story that makes us slaves and victims -- isn't in conflict with the point of Genesis 2-3. And what is that? I think it's got to be something about the power of humans to make choices, and the universal tendency to do wrong. The Babylonian myth has us as slaves, automatons, without any moral dimension. Come to think of it, the entire Enuma Elish doesn't have any ethical/moral content.

And just as Paul uses different words to emphasize different aspects of our relationship with God, Moses could very well use different names to focus on different aspects of God's relationship to his world, or when he's trying to make a different point.

A couple of final comments: first, it puzzles me that Professor Kugel doesn't mention the idea that Genesis 1 might be polemical poetry, even to dismiss it. He refers to similarities between Genesis and other literature of the time (the Enuma Elish, Gilgamesh epic, etc.), but doesn't describe the astonishing differences. That Genesis would be similar (in form and even in content) to what other people were saying and writing at the time is completely unsurprising; what is surprising is the set of stark contrasts, even in the creation stories.

Second, what to make of the source critics' claims? Well, it's obvious that Moses must have taken oral or extra-biblical material in writing Genesis, as he clearly wasn't there for any of it. Beyond that, the arguments -- at least the ones I've seen so far in Kugel's book -- are less than convincing. I find it much easier to believe that Moses wrote the Pentateuch using various sources (under the Holy Spirit's guidance) than to think that some post-exhilic cabal put this stuff together and passed it off as having been written by Moses several hundred years earlier.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Rolling averages considered harmful

Well, if not actually harmful, it's possible to be misled by them. Here's an example (yes I am making this up) that illustrates something kind of anomalous.

Suppose we're measuring, oh, new cases of the flu, or complaints about potholes in the street, something like this. Now consider the following figures taken over a 7-week period:

week # of cases change
week#1 20 (N/A)
week#2 30 +10
week#3 40 +10
week#4 50 +10
week#5 46 -4
week#6 42 -4
week#7 41 -1
That table tells the story that the number of flu cases (or whatever) got worse and peaked in week#4. In weeks 5,6,7 we saw the number of incoming cases decrease.

Now watch what happens if we ask for a 4-week rolling average to be reported weekly. The table below shows the average over the previous four weeks:

week # cases change 4-week rolling
week#1 20 (N/A) (N/A) (N/A)
week#2 30 +10 (N/A) (N/A)
week#3 40 +10 (N/A) (N/A)
week#4 50 +10 35 (N/A)
week#5 46 -4 41.5 +6.5
week#6 42 -4 44.5 +3.0
week#7 41 -1 44.75 +0.25
Note that in weeks 5,6,7, the 4-week rolling average is still increasing, even though the number of new cases is headed downward. This sort of thing can cause executives to worry needlessly, but the bad part is that the short-attention-span crowd can then order wild-goose-chases. "You guys say the number of cases is down week-on-week, but our 4-week rolling average is still trending up! Somebody had better find out why!"

So if you're tasked with weekly reports of a 4-week rolling average, you might want to watch out for anomalies like this.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

I wrote to our two senators today

I heard from a friend about the plight of refugee children from Burma. They've fled into Thailand and now are at risk of being deported -- back to a country that wants to kill them. Here's what I wrote, essentially the same message to both:
Short version: Please intercede with the Thai government to allow Karen refugee children to remain there, out of reach of the SPDC persecutors.

Dear Senator Feinstein,

The situation in Thailand regarding refugee children from the "Karen" ethnic group is dire. The New York Times article (below) from last August gives some background, but the current situation is: they are facing deportation by the Thai government, to face persecution and likely extermination. I'm writing to ask you to intervene on behalf of these children, that the silent genocide could be slowed -- at least for these children who are for now out of reach of the SPDC as long as they're allowed to remain in Thailand.

Thank you for reading and considering this.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Maple Falls

Where, you ask, is Maple Falls (or should that be "are")? The falls, which you see behind the lovely Carol, are at the end of not-really-a-trail in the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park in Aptos.

So let me back up a bit. The lovely Carol was at our church's women's retreat at Asilomar, a gorgeous location near Monterey. After the retreat, we met in Santa Cruz at the West Cliff Inn, where we took advantage of the last night of their winter rates. Monday morning, after a great breakfast, we finished packing and pointed the car down Highway 1 toward Monterey. Shortly after Capitola, we took the first Aptos exit (State Park Drive), turned left over the highway, then right at Soquel. After a little ways, we turned left on Aptos Creek Road and followed it into the park.

We paid the $8 fee (astonishingly I found eight one-dollar bills in my wallet) and drove up to George's Picnic Area on a road that was a little slippery. We used the facilities and got our boots on, then walked through two locked gates, turning left ¼ mile past the second one onto the Loma Prieta Grade. We really needed our boots on this trail.

We followed the Bridge Creek trail to the Bridge Creek historic site, and from there did the "creek scramble" (this "trail" is not maintained) up to the falls, where we stopped for lunch. We took the Loma Prieta Grade all the way back, which involved some climbing before things leveled out and headed back down. (This State Parks is hurting for maintenance funds; at one point, a tree had crashed into a bridge, dislodging the railing and forcing all hikers to either duck below or clamber over it. Downed trees in several places made this trail more work than intended.) All told we walked probably 10 miles and I'll say several hundred feet of climbing. The falls were nice (the photo doesn't do it, or the lovely Carol, justice). We ran into very few folks on this Monday outing.

Dinner was at Pacific Thai in Santa Cruz. Great service and terrific food. The coupon fee ( for $25 off a $50 purchase was money well spent. If you do this, your beverages don't count toward the $50 minimum, and they will add the gratuity in for you, sparing you the effort of calculating how much 15-16% is of $25 more than the net, etc.

A great day of playing hooky, a good workout, great food and conversation.