Curiouser and Pricier

April 7, 2020

If it seems as though some things have gotten more expensive over the years, even taking inflation into account, you’re not wrong.  This graph tracks the price of various things as compared with wages over the past 30 years.

I find it interesting that the two things that have increased most dramatically in cost are things backed by government money.  Inexpensive and these days nearly ubiquitous government student loans, and now healthcare backed by insurance which now is mandatory.  Sort of.  Kind of.  Maybe.  Obviously, as the graph indicates, government backing isn’t necessarily causative of the rise in health care costs, since Obamacare is a relatively recent thing and doesn’t seem to have driven costs up at a higher rate than previous years.

One thing that surprised me was the relative cost of new cars has only gone up by 18%.  Seems like a typical new car is a lot pricier today than it was 30 years ago, even considering inflation.


St. COVID’s Day

April 6, 2020

March 17th.  St. Patrick’s Day.  This was the first year the BCA moved the annual world tournament from July to March.  The first year as well that my teammates were all able to attend, and so the first time we’d be competing as a team in several years.  We’ve been anticipating this time for months, saving and preparing.

I imagined St. Patrick’s Day in Vegas to be something certainly worth observing.  In a city so  obsessed with consumption and excess, I was certain there would be plenty of good people-watching to be done.  And of course, a few Irish whiskeys along the way perhaps.  But not too many, as the team competition would be starting the next morning and we would want to be sharp and ready for the the already formidable task of having to start shooting pool at 9 am instead of in the late afternoon or evening as most of us were more  used to.

But instead, as the sun was going down over the Nevada desert I was hightailing it out of Las Vegas instead of celebrating.  The team event was cancelled as of Sunday evening.  We had remained in Vegas through Tuesday for my teammate who was still competing in the individual’s tournament (and ended up winning 3rd place in his division – not bad being able to say you’re the third best player in your division in the world!).  But as of 5 pm or so he had finished, gotten his check, had his picture taken, and it was time to leave.

I drove up to Vegas the previous week alone, knowing I’d be driving two teammates and their gear back.  But now I was also driving our league president and his wife back.  The hotels were shutting down and kicking everyone out.  Rather than wait another day for their flight back to Santa Barbara they squeezed into my SUV and I used my Tetris skills to fit their gear in as well.  It was a cozy bunch headed into the sunset.

We were maybe half an hour out of town when the classic rock station interrupted their playlist for a live broadcast from the governor of Nevada.  For the next 20 minutes or so we listened to him talk about what the state of Nevada would be doing immediately to respond to the threat of COVID-19.  Yes, the hotels would be shut down by noon the next day.  All gaming machines in the state would be turned off in a matter of hours at midnight.  People were being ordered to stay at home as much as possible.  It was clear an entire state was essentially closing, hunkering down and hoping that by doing so the spread of COVID-19 would be slowed, and fewer people would get sick and die from it.

We sat in stunned silence.

Good zombie movies often center around an unlikely collection of people forced to work together to survive.  That’s all well and good for a movie, but as we raced towards the sinking sun I couldn’t  help but think that this isn’t the group of people I would have hoped to be my apocalypse survival squad.  Not that there weren’t some good skill sets here.  Our league president served in the US Navy.  One of my teammates was good with his hands.  Another had experience in caring for people with disabilities.  It was a good, gritty crew to some extent.  But I couldn’t help but lament, as we drove by mostly empty gas stations and restaurants and Motel 6’s with their lights turned off that I would have preferred to be facing the apocalypse with my family, even if we weren’t quite as gritty and our survival chances might not be as good.

That ride, and listening to the speech from the governor is likely something I’ll never forget.  Unlike any experience in my life.  Unlike 9/11.  Unlike housing busts and recessions, presidential assassination attempts or even the vague background threat of nuclear war as a child and young adult.  This was something different.

Three weeks later it remains something fundamentally different.  How long can a country shut down?  How long are people expected to shelter in place and avoid one another?  What are the long-term costs to our country not just economically but socially and politically?  We don’t have any road maps for these sorts of considerations.  As competing models and evolving models of how the infection will play out in our country shift and change, something seems clear.

COVID-19 will have to be a pretty big deal.  If it turns out to be a smaller issue than anticipated, if it turns out to have the overall impact of a really bad flu season, there’s going to be hell to pay.  Or at least there should be.  There will need to be some very specific repercussions against a government ordering people to shut their businesses down and destroy their livelihoods rather than guiding people but allowing them to make decisions that seem to make sense.

Either COVID-19 is devastating to our nation as an actual health crisis, or it will be devastating to our political structure and the people who sacrificed untold small businesses out of fear or paranoia.  It’s possible that both things could happen, though I pray not.  But understanding whether COVID-19 is ultimately dangerous enough to very possibly destroy an entire economic and political system is something we aren’t going to know until after the fact.

It’s popular to compare COVID-19 to the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918-1920.  The Spanish flu killed 675,000 Americans in less than two years.  We’re currently at not quite 13,000 deaths.  This is, of course tragic, but also confusing, as an undetermined number of deaths attributed to COVID-19 are also strongly related to underlying and pre-existing health conditions.  At the same time, there have been an estimated 24,000 deaths from the flu through the end of March, and I assume that some number of  those deaths also involve compromised health situations.  Depending on what news reports you choose to believe, we may already be seeing the COVID-19 infection rate slowing in the US.

It will be painful and fascinating in the coming years to understand better whether we reacted appropriately to COVID-19 or not.  Whether the economic and political damage incurred is something we can recover from or will lead us into new economic and political realities couldn’t  have foreseen.  Most zombie movies never play out the long game of community and state and nation and world rebuilding.  Nobody has the attention span for that.  Or  at least, we didn’t used to.

Hopefully we do now.  Because we’re all in this together, an unlikely group of people thrust together and required to work together to survive.  I pray we’re up  to the task, and careful about the precedents that are knowingly or unknowingly being set right now.  I hope our skills, Tetris or otherwise, are up to the task.  And I hope people are willing to work together towards these ends rather than continuing to isolate and scream at one another through their face masks and social media masks.  There are challenges ahead but also opportunities, if we are wise enough to discern enough and brave enough to take them.  Hopefully the darkest part of this night-desert-drive is over, and we’ll be seeing the sun coming up shortly.


Reading Ramblings – Easter ~ April 12, 2020

April 5, 2020

Reading Ramblings

Date: Easter Sunday – COVID-19 – April 12, 2020

Texts: Exodus 14:10-31; Exodus 15:1-18 (instead of a psalm); 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Mathew 28:1-10

Context: Easter. The pinnacle of the Christian year, and the basis for the entire Christian faith. Without the empty tomb, without the validation and vindication of the claims of Jesus of Nazareth to be the Son of God who came to offer himself in exchange for us, Christianity has no base. None of the other miracles and teachings of Jesus have any lasting value if the tomb is not empty. The early Christians realized this (1 Corinthians 15:14). What Jesus accomplished in his death and resurrection is on the grandest of all scales, but was foreshadowed through an impressive though much smaller rescue of God’s people roughly 1500 years earlier, when the Israelites were delivered from slavery and genocide soley by the hand of God.

Exodus 14:10-31 – The people of God have already left Egypt. Driven out by a Pharaoh broken by the accumulated suffering inflicted by God as a demonstration of his sole and complete authority over all things, even in the land of Egypt with a robust collection of deities. Rather than lead his people out of Egypt along the Mediterranean coast, the Lord leads his people directly (more or less) westward, until they come up to the shore of the Red Sea. It is here that Pharaoh and his chariots catch up to the Israelites with the intent to inflict a great deal of death and likely take the survivors back as slaves again. All seems lost. The Israelites are not warriors. They are not equipped for battle even if they were. But God has one more demonstration of his power in this saga with the Egyptians. Once more He displays both his great love and care for his people as well as his power over all things. Truly, as Jesus says, nothing is impossible with God (Luke 1:37). These are strong reminders to us today, as we shelter in place and worry about catching COVID-19, that our God is supreme over all things and situations large or microscopic. His promises to us are trustworthy, even if his means are beyond our ability to scrutinize and understand. We are to wait on his saving power in faith, knowing we have already received that power in the death and resurrection of his Son on our behalf!

Exodus 15:1-18 – This was a reading option instead of a psalm, and it seemed like a good idea to go this route, since this Easter is strange in so many respects! Moses leads God’s people in a heartfelt song of praise, detailing the Lord’s saving power on behalf of his people. The first ten verses recount the essentials of the flight from Egypt and deliverance through the Red Sea. Verses 11-12 are a pause to reiterate the glory of God and marvel in his power. Verses 13-18 look ahead, beyond the recent rescue to the continued power of God exercised on behalf of his people. What can’t and won’t God accomplish, the God who can defeat the vast power of the Pharaoh? Likewise as we extoll the past work of God in our lives, we also look forward in confidence to his continued love and care for us, a love and care primarily defined for us (Biblically) as resurrection from death and eternal life in joy. All of this because the Lord is a man of war, as v.3 asserts. While this is not necessarily the imagery we are used to associating with God, it is very Biblical and very appropriate. Against the power of evil within and without us that desires to see us swallowed up in eternal death and separation from our Creator, God comes out in force. He does not sit idly by and watch Satan torment us. He is always at work, and we are assured of Satan’s defeat precisey because our Redeemer lives and the grave does not hold him!

1 Corinthians 15:1-11 – This passage is crucial because despite much controversy among modern scholars, it is almost universally recognized as authentic and authored by St. Paul. And here we hear loud and clearly that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the centerpiece of the earliest Christian community, rather than an afterthought centuries later. In fact most scholars believe that what Paul says in vs. 3-8 is not his own words but a quotation or paraphrasing of an early Christian hymn or creedal statement. In any event, we have here, within a matter of just a few years of Jesus’ death and resurrection proof that the early Christians held his resurrection to be of the utmost importance, and verifiable through multiple witnesses, many of whom are alive and can be contacted to verify what Paul and the apostles are claiming. It is in fact Paul’s repeated insistence, as in his defense before King Agrippa in Acts 26, that the claims about Jesus are widely known and widely verifiable, including his resurrection. Our faith is not based on fairy tales but on the firm and certain testimony of reliable witnesses!

Matthew 28:1-10 – Matthew’s account gives us several details the other Gospels don’t – the earthquake and the angel rolling away the stone, most notably, as well as what happened to the Roman guards. These things likely occurred just prior to the women arriving at the tomb, so they did not see the angel roll away the tomb but the angel did speak to them when they arrived, directing them to report to the disciples. Some people point out that the four gospels each differ in slight respects from one another, whether in terms of who they report going to the tomb or how many angels are witnessed (one or two). It should be remembered that these differences are one of the hallmarks of authentic eyewitness testimony, as opposed to a single account being copied identically by four different people. Mark records Peter’s testimony, and Luke’s testimony lines up closely with Mark’s and Matthew’s but includes additional information (the Emmaus account) indicating Luke talked with others beyond Peter and Matthew. John also reports additional details (he and Peter racing to the tomb). The differences are not mutually exclusive – they weave together very well into a logical whole without contradiction (Luke reports two angels while Matthew only mentions one – but stating there were two implies there was definitely at least one, and only mentioning one does not preclude the possibility there was another). But the central point remains consistent and the same across all four – Jesus was expected to be dead and buried in the tomb, but was not. He was witnessed alive again by multiple people in separate moments throughout Easter Sunday and for weeks that followed. This is to be our focus. Our Lord lives! And because He lives, we have hope! We have the confidence that through faith in him we too shall live, and death truly has lost its sting.

We may have to celebrate Easter separately this year. But we do so only physically separate. Our hearts and spirits are united with all the faithful in Christ through all the centuries and from all over the world. And our worship and praise and prayers are still united with theirs as they are at all times. We look forward to the day – hopefully very soon – when we can gather together again to sing praises together, knowing that our Redeemer lives!

Book Review: Households of Faith

April 3, 2020

Households of Faith by Barna Group

I blogged about a month ago about some new resources floating around my denomination that sparked my attention.  I ordered them and have finished the first part of them, this book Households of Faith.  It’s not so much a book as a collection of statistical data resulting from questions posed to 2347 practicing Christians.  The resulting data has been organized by Barna into four types of Christian homes:

  • Vibrant – engage in spiritual practices & conversations and practice hospitality
  • Devotional – engage in spiritual practices & conversations but don’t regularly practice hospitality
  • Hospitable – are very hospitable but participates in either spiritual practices & conversations but not both, or practices neither
  • Dormant – don’t practice hospitality or engage in spiritual practices or conversations

This book provides the statistical data and interpretation for some discipling materials that I’m reading now.  The idea is how to equip Christians to better build homes that include spiritual practices, spiritual conversations,  and engage in hospitality, the idea being that these things can be built on by anyone at any stage of life even if they haven’t been formative aspects of their home previously.

If you like statistics, you’ll enjoy this book.  If charts and graphs are your thing, you’ll love this.  To me, a non-statistician, most of the survey data didn’t seem to be significant.  While there were slight differences, more often than not the responses were very close between varying stages of life, types of households, etc.  By viewing the results as a spectrum to draw broad conclusions from it makes sense, but personally it’s not very compelling.  It doesn’t surprise me that spiritually vibrant homes embody these particular aspects because those aspects seem rather Biblical to me.  In which case, while the statistical data is nice, it’s hardly surprising, and therefore not as necessary beyond telling us what we should have already gleaned from Scripture.

This is not a necessary preface to the discipling materials based on it other than recognizing that there are statistical supports to the approaches used in the discipling materials.





Preaching to the Church

April 2, 2020

The Los  Angeles Times today ran an editorial critical of religious leaders (it only mentions Christian religious leaders, curiously) who are not fans of shelter-in-place demands and how they affect congregations.  The editorial criticizes Christian leaders who either disobey restrictions on large gatherings or are critical of such restrictions.  Such behavior is characterized in the editorial as reckless and defiant.

The editorial openly questions assertions that Christians in large worship venues could gather safely for worship, still maintaining proper social distancing recommendations.  Perhaps the editors have never been in a large worship space?  If we can practice social distancing to obtain groceries and other necessities, why would the assumption be it is impossible to do so in a worship setting?  There is a definite bias here that is unsupported in any meaningful way beyond an obvious belief that Christians gathering together for encouragement and comfort in the faith is not vital to them.

Of course the editorial has to bring Trump into this, equating the religious with Trump, as well as sneering at the “religious values” of human and divine fellowship entailed in Christian worship.

The editorial concludes by citing the publication Christianity Today, which recently in an editorial sided with those church leaders and congregations who have decided to suspend (not close) in-person activities because “The Church remains the Church online, too.”  The Times editorial ends with the assertion that continuing to meet for worship  during this time is irreligious.

Such a flimsy treatment of such a complicated issue as freedom of religion and the life of faith is unhelpful,  at best.  Using the generalized language of this editorial, houses of worship ought to  be closed every year from September to March or so because of flu season, wherein 19 million some Americans are infected and in the neighborhood of 10,000 die.  Annually.

I’d like to think  that a more informed and even-handed approach to a very complicated subject could be had instead of a brief editorial.  But apparently it won’t be had in the Times.

Holy Communion and Shelter in Place

April 2, 2020

This Sunday will be the third Sunday in a row our church has not met together in deference to popular wisdom regarding social distancing as well as civil authority orders not to gather for the time being, and in consideration of our congregation’s demographics of mostly older and therefore at-risk members.  It’s looking as though Holy Week is going to be observed individually rather than communally, including Easter Sunday.  This has never happened before in my lifetime, or probably in many other American’s lifetimes.

The question the Church grapples with, including our little denominational corner of it, is how do we handle the Sacraments?  This may not be a big issue in much of Reform-theology American Christendom where the Sacraments are observed but lack a confessional reason for doing so.  If you don’t actually believe Christ is present in the consecrated elements, not just in some spiritual sense but in a real and true sense even if it wouldn’t show up under a microscope, then whether you have Holy Communion or not, or how you have it tend to be much smaller issues.

But for Confessional church bodies such as the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church and my own Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, this is a pretty big deal.  In obedience to 1 Corinthians 11 and Paul’s teaching about the seriousness of the Sacraments, how do we remain obedient to the Word of God and the historic understanding of God’s people for the last 2000 years in regards to Holy Communion?

Naturally, there is disagreement.

Some pastors and congregations have decided it makes sense to virtually consecrate elements that are prepared separately, in parishioners’ homes.  Parishioners would tune-in over their computer (though there would be no essential difference between a Skype or Zoom sort of thing or a phone call)  and the pastor would say the Words of Institution as the people at home have bread and wine already prepared and ready before them.  Proponents of this approach argue that the distance between the pastor and the parishioners and the distribution of elements across multiple households as opposed to a single altar aren’t essentially different.  The God who created space and time and is not bound by either is free to work in this arrangement.  The people are still ‘gathered’ at a single point in time (though again, arguments could be made that even this is not necessary), forming a virtual congregation in the technical sense, but a real and actual congregation in the physical sense.  Just one that is quite a bit more spread out than normal.

Of course, there are those who disagree.  Vigorously.  They argue this is an abomination and mockery of historical  practice regarding Holy Communion, and amounts to making the sacrament laicized (yes, that’s apparently a real word!) – something  now under the authority of lay men and women rather than a formally ordained and Called pastor/priest.  Some of these opponents to virtual Communion are calling for church discipline to be used with any pastor and/or congregation who insists on persisting in this practice and doesn’t repent under rebuke by an ecclesiastical supervisor.

Both groups hold a high view of Holy Communion, I’d argue.  The former group views it as so important they don’t want to withhold it from their congregants.  The latter group views it as so important that, if necessary, it must be withheld from congregants rather than debase it in unfaithfulness to Scripture and/or Confessional doctrinal stances.

Both groups also are concerned about pastoral authority, the Office of the Keys that a pastor or priest holds.  The former group believes the pastor’s authority can be extended via technology into households and elements and congregants not physically together in his presence.  The latter believes such a move essentially eliminates pastoral  authority and makes the lay participants the actual priests/pastors in the sacrament.

Quite the conundrum.  But not an unprecedented one.

I’m not foolish enough to try and offer an  answer or an opinion.  But I’ll note an interesting thing.  In an essay dated March 28, 2020 that I was referred to, the defense of the Sacrament against virtual consecration states the pastor was ordained into the office of shepherd and he has the fatherly vocation in the community to preach and administer the sacraments (emphasis mine).

This is very true.  My denomination holds – along with the historic Church – that when the people of God gather for public worship, there  is only one pastor, only one with designated authority from the community/congregation to lead worship, and officiate over the Sacraments.  Even a congregation with multiple pastors recognizes that in public worship, there is one officiant at any given moment, only one person with authority either in the preaching they are offering or in presiding over the liturgy or in officiating over the Sacraments.  Not just anyone can stand up and do those things.  The congregation – in the interest of maintaining order – designates a specific person or persons who exercise that authority as the Called and ordained pastor(s) of the congregation.

And when all things are functioning optimally, this should be the only environment where the Sacraments are received – when the community of faith gathers together in one place for public, corporate worship.  I assume that those who advocate for virtual Communion do so only in this present, mostly unprecedented situation in American Christianity.  They would not – like some Christians from other backgrounds – advocate that this is acceptable on an ongoing basis, like some televangelists have and probably still do.  I’m also assuming that they would agree that communing households separately is to be avoided unless illness or  some  other issue makes it impossible for one or more  persons in that household to join in corporate worship with the rest of the congregation.  Communion the home-bound or the seriously ill or dying at home or in a hospital or  other care facility is a long-standing practice of the people of God.

Do we put the Sacraments on hold during an emergency?  Do we offer them in the traditional ways regardless of risks and civil authority orders to the contrary?  Does the pastor individually commune each household in their congregation to administer the Sacrament in person?  Are there lessons to be gleaned from the mission field?  Do those who serve in areas where there is no local congregation and no local pastor/priest simply go without Communion indefinitely?  I’ve heard of this being the practice of some.  Is there an understanding that the father as the head of a household could act as priest to his family privately, not displacing proper ecclesial structure or authority but acting out of necessity because proper ecclesial figures are unavailable?

Does the Church have flexibility in times of crisis  to alter long-standing traditions so long as they don’t conflict with Scripture or, secondarily, doctrinal and confessional stances?

Those who argue against this in our denomination cite our Confessional documents, which include the Augsburg (unaltered) Confession, and in particular Article XIV, which states that no one should publicly teach in the church or administer the Sacraments unless he be regularly called.  The basis for this confessional statement – which every pastor in our denomination vows to uphold – is that the Roman Catholics accused Luther and his followers of eliminating the clergy and seeking to make their churches completely lay-run.  While there were other reformers who went down this path, Luther and his followers did not.  Article XIV was a clear statement to show that Luther and his followers held with the tradition of the Church on this matter and were not to be lumped in with other more radical reformers.

Is Article XIV rightly applied in this situation?  Let’s assume it is.

To me the key issue here is the word publicly.  Obviously (in our denomination and long-standing Church practice) nobody should assume an authority among God’s people on their own.  Rather, their authority comes from the people, the congregation, who request that person to serve as their public worship leader and teacher.  In our denomination that authority is further vetted and strengthened by an extensive educational and vocational training in seminary, and by ordination into our denomination in conjunction with a congregation’s Call to that person to serve as their pastor.  A man may be ordained in our denomination and therefore qualified to pastor one of our congregations, but that man holds no authority in and of himself, but only exercises any form of authority when a congregation has Called and installed him as their pastor.

So in public preaching (teaching) and administering over worship and the Sacraments, there is one or more designated (Called) people who do this.  Not just anyone can stand up and lead worship or administer the Sacraments.  I’m pretty sure everyone on both sides of this issue would agree that a non-Called (lay) person could not and should not take it upon themselves to administer the Sacraments to a public, gathered congregation of God’s people.  Not in our denomination.

An alternate interpretation of the word publicly links it to some sort of official capacity, as briefly dealt with here(without substantiating citations, however).

What happens in the home, though?

The main issue appears to be one of pastoral authority.  How do we protect the Biblical understanding that there are designated leaders/authorities within a given congregation and they – and they alone – bear responsibility to the congregation and to God for carrying out the duties they are entrusted with – preaching of the Word of God and delivery of the Sacraments of God?  Does a distributed form of Communion weaken the role of the pastor and pastoral authority, and give people the idea that pastors are unnecessary, and that they themselves can just as easily function as their own priests?

That would be a grave mistake and one we would definitely want to avoid.

But is it possible to – grudgingly perhaps, and reluctantly – recognize that families under the guidance of the father could commune at home because there is no ability to gather with the faithful in corporate worship with a Called pastor?  Could there be a way to recognize this as temporary, valid only for a pre-determined length of time because of contagion or some other unusual circumstance?

Heresy and heterodoxy is always a possibility among sinful human beings.  This is the case whether we gather corporately for worship every week or rarely.  I wonder if it might be possible to consider a limited authorization of home Communion until the COVID-19 crisis passes?  Could this both strengthen and accentuate the value of the family and heighten our appreciation for what we receive when we gather together as the people of God in corporate worship under the guidance of pastoral authority?

It’s an interesting question, and I wish I found more curiosity about the theological aspects of the question rather than overly-simplistic insistence we must change or staunch refusal to consider any form of change.  Thus far, the citations and references I’ve seen in rejecting any form of home communion don’t really allow for any middle ground.  Either you’re safely doing things the way we’ve done them for centuries, or you’re a complete heretic who is rejecting the Word of God and therefore denigrating his Sacraments.  I’d like to think there could be a middle ground that acknowledges while not ideal, we can accommodate stop-gap solutions to crisis without discarding proper theological understanding that still holds as soon as the crisis passes.







Staying Sane

April 1, 2020

As people deal with shelter-in-place orders and social distancing, here are some interesting options for staying sane both individually and as a family.

Here’s a list of movies suitable for watching among multiple generations of adults.  I can vouch for The Two Popes as a worthwhile watch.  Our family has also (previously) watched The Hundred Foot Journey, and were not as thrilled with the overall quality of the movie despite a few good moments.  The Shawshank Redemption is one I only recently watched and found to be deserving of the accolades it has collected over the years.  Likewise Raiders of the Lost Ark is a great family classic.  Romancing the Stone isn’t nearly as good in the adventure category, and goes for some more sexual humor than Raiders does (although sequels to Raiders up the sexual innuendo substantially).  While it might sound boring, The King’s Speech is a phenomenal movie from an acting perspective.  As I remember, A Fish Called Wanda also has some sexual innuendo but also some stellar performances.  The Usual Suspects is one of my all time favorite films.

Perhaps you’d rather do some explorations in the real world?  Maybe a virtual trip to Disneyland would be a fun diversion?  Or if you’d rather wander farther afield, here is a collection of walks through various places in the world.

Nothing to Catch Us

March 30, 2020

This article caught my eye several months ago, before the current world-wide panic over COVID-19.  It caught my eye in January because of the memorable line early in the story – There was nothing to catch us.

The whole point of the story is decades and decades of failure in terms of public policy on homelessness.  The entire story is geared around the idea that homelessness is essentially a public policy issue best solved by all levels of government in a combined effort to save these people from their situations.  Yes, yes, the article will grudgingly concede, mental illness and addiction are often contributing factors.  But since those are different arenas, let’s essentially just focus on the economics of it and how government should pump more money into systems already proven to not work to fix the problem.

Here in California, where homelessness is often a matter of ‘enlightened’ live and let live, resulting in pervasive homeless camps both communal and solitary, lawmakers want to throw an additional $2 billion dollars per year at solutions for homelessness.  These solutions will undoubtedly emphasize state and local programs, social workers, case workers, low-rent housing options, and a variety of other factors.

Even should such massive appropriations be approved (raising taxes on other people and thereby putting more people at risk of homelessness, perhaps?), it won’t solve the problem.  Experts have already said as much.  But it’s better than nothing, right?  And to be fair, something is better than nothing.  But some things are better than other somethings.

And it fascinates me (but doesn’t surprise me) that so much emphasis is placed on state-provided solutions towards these issues and no attention is given to the importance of strong families as a means of protecting the most vulnerable in our society.  Of the people who approach me for help, it’s literally universal that they have no other support lines in terms of family, nuclear or extended.  There are undoubtedly myriad reasons for this, but it is a consistent factor.

I wonder what it would look like if our society finally admitted that families are actually more important than the State, in terms of providing stable environments for children to be born and raised and continuing to function as safety nets even into adulthood, both for the grown children as well as their aging parents?  I wonder what it would look like if the State invested in these directions rather than in trying to create alternative systems which repeatedly prove inadequate to the challenge despite good intentions?

The first and best line of defense against the unexpected and catastrophic in people’s lives is family.  We can’t prevent tragedies from happening, but families are naturally the first line of defense and solidarity when they do strike.  It’s a shame this sort of common sense eludes elected officials when they discuss strategies to help people, and journalists when they report on the disadvantaged.


Reading Ramblings – April 5, 2020

March 29, 2020

Reading Ramblings

Date: Palm Sunday, April 5, 2020

Texts: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 118:19-29; Philippians 2:5-11; John 12:12-19

Context: Normally I prefer the longer reading for Palm Sunday, that takes us all the way from the night before Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem all the way through the crucifixion. But this year seems like we ought to do something different. In the year of COVID-19 and shelter-in-place and social distancing, perhaps the shorter reading just of the triumphal entry that John provides will work. A different approach, but then this day has been observed in a variety of ways based on different times and places so it’s hardly inappropriate. Jesus enters Jerusalem not for the first time but the last time, fulfilling prophecy and signaling He is about to accomplish what He was sent ultimately to do – to offer himself as a sacrifice. It’s a day full of promise, a day we ought to relish for what it is without rushing too far ahead to what is coming. The King is entering his city! Acknowledged by his people! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!

Isaiah 50:4-9a – These verses look ahead to the full scope of Holy Week, but they are also appropriate here and now. Jesus allows himself to be carried by the praise of the crowd into Jerusalem. Allows prophecy to be fulfilled. Allows himself to be who and what He has come for. He remains perfectly obedient. Not passive, but actively obedient to the words poured into his ear by God the Holy Spirit. Knowing what lies ahead, how the shouts of joy will be replaced with demands for his death. But through all of this, He trusts in his heavenly Father’s will and plan which will include his vindication. His enemies will be defeated not by his divine power but through divine love. A defeat which has the power to transform them in that defeat from enemies to sons and daughters. God is not satisfied with simply defeating his enemies, but rather in converting them, saving them from the death and defeat that is the rightful fate of our one true enemy, Satan.

Psalm 118:19-29 – This psalm is a beautiful responsive psalm of praise to God who delivers his people. It can be divided into two major sections – vs. 1-18 and vs. 19-29, with calls to worship and praise both starting and ending the psalm. The psalm specifically deals with he who comes in the name of the Lord (v.26). It is this person who rightly speaks in this psalm and to whom the people of God ascribe praise and blessing. The irony is that the one who comes in the name of the Lord is also a sacrifice to God (v.27). Yet this one can proclaim that he shall not die but live (v.17). He is the righteous one who can enter the gates of righteousness (vs.19-20) and proclaim the salvation of the Lord (v.21) despite he himself being despised and rejected (v.22). Only the Lord God could choose to work his salvation in such an unlikely way, and for that He alone deserves all glory and honor (vs.23-24). The congregation responds in blessing upon the one sent in the name of the Lord (vs.26-27) who is the answer to their prayer for deliverance (v.25). He is the embodiment God’s steadfast and faithful love (v.29). Definitely words appropriate to Jesus on Palm Sunday, and definitely words of blessing and praise appropriate to we his people by faith, who He has saved and delivered!

Philippians 2:5-11 – All this praise and glory might go to your head. It would mine, and I doubt there are many people who could resist the temptation to lord their supremity over others, or flaunt their blessedness in the face of those despising and persecuting them. Yet even here Jesus is obedient, refusing to indulge in the temptation of vanity or self-glory or pride. The very Son of God who refuses to use this identity as a means of glorifying himself, when his duty is to glorify his heavenly Father. He didn’t simply avoid self-glory He obediently emptied himself and became the most base and lowly of us. He stooped to do things – like washing his disciples’ feet – nobody else would consider appropriate for themselves, let alone the Messiah! And He was obedient to being branded a criminal and executed as such, publicly humiliated and shamed and seemingly thoroughly discredited. Even then, He trusted in his heavenly Father as the source of his vindication rather than seeking to vindicate himself. These are all wonderful things to recite and proclaim about the Son of God, and ignore Paul’s admonition at the beginning – we are to seek to be just this humble, just this desirous not of personal glory and gain but only of obedience to God that He might receive the glory!

John 12:12-19 – Lazarus has been raised from the dead but Jesus withdraws from Bethany to a nearby town to avoid the Jewish authorities plotting to kill him (John 11:54). Ephraim was not far from Bethany, apparently, and so as the Passover grew closer, Jesus returned to Bethany and the house of Mary and Martha and Lazarus and is the guest of honor of a dinner there, probably on Saturday night after the Sabbath ended at sundown. It is the next day, Sunday, when Jesus begins his final entry to Jerusalem. However he was not alone! There were many people at the dinner party the night before, a celebration of Jesus and what He had done so recently for that small family. These people had returned to Jerusalem that night after the dinner. Now they hear Jesus is on his way and they go out to meet him. The words of Psalm 118 seem very appropriate for a man who can raise the dead. While they may not understand him fully as Messiah or the divine Son of God, they can affirm that He is someone who obviously comes in the name of the Lord, else how could He perform such an amazing miracle? They acclaim him King of Israel, which further indicates their faith that He is a holy man at the very least, and perhaps much more than that – the promised Messiah and son of David who would be king. His manner of arrival would further contribute to this idea, so that John draws the connection with Zechariah’s prophecy in chapter 9. John further admits the disciples – himself included – didn’t understand the full significance of these events until after the resurrection. Until after the Holy Spirit had enlightened them and opened their eyes to the Scriptures as Jesus had promised them (John 13, 16; Luke 24).

We see in this scene excitement to be sure, but we should be cautious in seeing here full faith in Jesus as the Son of God and promised Messiah. But that faith was growing in the crowd, particularly given the witness of Lazarus being raised from the dead. Faith and joy and trust are the only reasonable responses to seeing the clear work of God. The work of the Pharisees to compromise or discredit Jesus has failed. The power of God is stronger than their plans, and their misunderstandings and misperceptions cannot and will not stop the truth of God from playing out. It is not our faith and understanding that determine what God can and cannot do. God does what He will, and we are called in faith to recognize it for what it is and respond in the appropriate obedience and praise.

Highly Illogical

March 27, 2020

Sometimes it’s the little things that are inspiring and surprising.

As a casual Trekkie and somewhat more than casual admirer of J.R.R. Tolkien, I found a curious blending of the two a few years ago after the Star Trek movie reboot.  Namely, a very delightful if slightly corny Audi commercial starring the original Spock, Leonard Nimoy, and his reboot alter-ego, Zachary Quinto.  It’s a cute commercial but I never understood the song Nimoy was singing.  I thought it was just a nonsensical sort of thing to compare his outdatedness with Quinto’s more with-it persona and car.

Now I find out  there’s a history to what Nimoy is singing about Bilbo Baggins.  A history that goes all the way back to 1967 when Nimoy, in addition to starring in a new series called Star Trek, was releasing musical albums.  Two at this point.  And he sang this original song called The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins on one of his albums, and then lip-synced it for a campy TV show during the summer of 1967.

Mind blown.  I respect the Audi commercial even more now for their attention to detail – even a detail many would miss!