Book Review – The Lost Temple of Java

January 9, 2022

The Lost Temple of Java by Phil Grabsky

Having lost a great deal of enthusiasm for my upcoming project, I decided to step away from anthropological and sociological texts and guides and do something a bit more basic. This is a great book primarily because it has a lot of photos. Much of the book is history – specifically the history of Thomas Stamford Raffles, under whose governance this massive Buddhist temple was rediscovered in the 19th century after having been abandoned roughly 1000 years earlier.

It’s history, but it’s written well and the photos and sketches break up the text nicely. This is appropriate as we know frustratingly few details of the actual construction of the temple – who built it, why, etc. The biographical information on Raffles is therefore more concrete and relatable even if it’s somewhat removed from the actual temple. But it does help to contextualize the amazing nature not only of the rediscovery but Raffles’ progressive attitudes towards exploration and preservation.

Hard Words. But True

January 8, 2022

If you are responsible for raising children right now, read this. Or read it if you know someone responsible for raising children. If you take your Biblical Christian faith seriously and need to guide young people towards their future, ready it. It’s blunt. And maybe bluntness is something we need a bit more these days.

What Cancel Culture Can’t Account For

January 5, 2022

A short article, but a miraculous one in our climate of cancel culture and the scorched-earth ideologies and tactics of whomever wields influence at the moment. The article reports how former inmates with the once-imprisoned Bill Cosby still try to keep in touch with him because of the positive impact he had on their lives while he was behind bars.

The author struggles with what appears to be this impossible paradox – a man imprisoned for accusations of sexually assaulting incapacitated women – could still have wisdom to impart and be a benefit to anyone. Because by today’s standards, this shouldn’t be possible. Someone who commits a crime or violates the accepted or promoted values of the moment deserves to be destroyed. Deserves to have their honorary degrees revoked, their accolades trampled, their achievements obliterated. The idea that a deeply flawed human being could at the same time actually be someone capable of doing good to others doesn’t hold currency in our culture today.

St. Paul would disagree, though. Read the latter portion of Romans 7 (actually, read ALL of this letter, but the most pertinent part to this discussion is in Chapter 7 for my less patient readers). St. Paul is not trying to exonerate himself. He is not insisting that he does not sin, or that his sin should not count against him. Rather, he acknowledges full well the reality of his sin, the severity of the sin, his deserving of the full penalty of the law for that sin. He realizes that his intentions are not enough to satisfy the requirement of the Law. And he recognizes he is doomed under the Law if left to himself. He is totally dependent on being rescued, redeemed, restored by someone external to himself (vs. 24-25).

I’m not defending what Cosby may have done. I’m not arguing he should not be punished for those crimes if they occurred. I simply hope to remind people that we are incapable of perfectly fulfilling the law. Either laws we create for ourselves or the Law given to us in Scripture upon which all of our laws ultimately derive whatever validity they might have. As such, punishment must come. As such, all of us to varying degrees deserve punishment. And as such, all of us must pray and plead not simply for justice and obliteration but mercy. Because whether we’re guilty of gossiping or shoplifting or murder, most every one of us also has moments where we are capable of doing some good – large or small – to others. Therein lies our humanity and our love for tragic heroes.

It’s not hard to punish. But it’s hard to punish while still desiring the best for the person being punished rather than simply wishing their suffering for reasons of revenge.

Law and Guilt

January 4, 2022

I don’t keep in touch with many folks from my high school days. A handful of close friends tenuously held together by intentional and not-so-intentional mini-reunions is about it. But I have another friend that has done an incredible job of keeping in touch over the years, and taking the opportunity to get together for lunch or dinner whenever we found ourselves in similar parts of the country. So it was that we were meeting the following day, Thursday, for lunch at a Mexican restaurant she suggested.

She asked me to choose a place to eat initially. I opted for a small Mexican restaurant nearby. I’d never been there but the reviews were good and the place looked pretty authentic, as opposed to the more Americanized places. But she nixed the idea because of Covid considerations. She wanted to sit outdoors, which was fine by me.

Then the night before she sent a short e-mail. Her daughter back in South Carlonia tested positive for Covid, and my friend had obviously spent a lot of time around her in the days before her trip to Arizona. My friend didn’t have any symptoms but wanted to warn me in case I preferred to cancel. I didn’t, and we met as planned.

There were tears in her eyes as we sat across the table from each other. Tears of frustration and anger and fear. We did everything right. And yet her daughter had Covid. My friend’s husband had tested negative, but still the great fearful illness had infiltrated their careful defenses. Their double-dose vaccinations. Their isolating. Their fastidiousness in wearing masks. Her daughter had tearfully asked on the phone the night before if her mother was angry with her that she got sick. My friend was angry, but not with her daughter. She was angry with all the people who hadn’t been careful. Hadn’t vaccinated. Hadn’t isolated. Hadn’t insisted on masks everywhere.

Though she didn’t say it, she was angry with me, as I fit into those categories. And in the carefully constructed Covid mythology, if you followed the rules and did what you were supposed to, you could avoid the virus. Except for those people. The people who for whatever reason opted not to follow every twist and turn, scientific, political, social, calculated or arbitrary, designed to keep people safe. Healthy.

It was a striking conversation. My heart went out to her. And I gently reminded her that there are no guarantees in life. That doing all the right things might be a very good idea, but certainly could not ensure a perfectly predictable outcome. She knew this to be true, and yet she couldn’t get past the anger and fear that the efforts she and her family had made, the sacrifices they had made, were not enough to protect them.

So this article struck a chord with me, and does a better job than I might in explaining the theological metaphors illuminated in this very un-theological Covid crisis. It’s worth a read.

It isn’t that trying to do the right thing is wrong. It’s just that in this very fallible and sinfully broken world, there is no clear, perfect right thing. Nothing we can hold onto and cling to as justification for ourselves, as protection for ourselves. Nothing outside of us, nothing inside of us. Only Christ can do this for us. Can promise us to be enough. And that requires us to let go of whatever we’re clutching to and cling to him instead, acknowledging in that action our terrifying frailty and the transient and brief nature of our mortal lives.

Following the French

December 31, 2021

I could have sworn I blogged some years ago about an initiative with some French grocery stores to sell ugly produce at lower prices. This based on the reality that only a portion of produce grown is able to be sold to grocery stores, who generally want perfect fruits and vegetables which will appeal to consumers. Those less-than-perfect fruits and vegetables often end up rotting with no buyers available. However, I wasn’t able to find either that post or any related online material about the program. Hopefully it’s still going!

But the French are continuing to re-evaluate how to be environmentally friendly in the grocery store, this time banning plastic packaging. I’ve been amazed (and depressed) that despite alleged concerns over the environment and trash here in the US, disposable products continue to be created and marketed – a triumph over alleged convenience over any sort of ecological or environmental conscious. The example that sticks in my mind is commercials for single-use disposable plastic cutting boards.

Attempting to reduce the production of single-use plastics and the ongoing creation of trash bound for landfills ought to be a common-sense topic for those who truly believe human beings are behind climate change. It ought to make sense in general, regardless of your views on the origins of climate change. Less trash is good, and reminding people of the financial as well as environmental benefits of reusing and reducing is something we all could use.

Might even make a good resolution for the new year!

Christianity and Aliens

December 29, 2021

I was more than a little surprised the first time someone asked me (prior to my career change to the ministry) whether I believed in extraterrestrial life and what the Bible has to say about it. My response then is more or less my response still – the Bible doesn’t preclude the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere in the cosmos, but nor does it lead us to expect it. The person who first asked me this was convinced that John 10 and Jesus’ talk about other sheep was a veiled reference to alien life. I disagree with his interpretation of that passage as I’m pretty positive Jesus is talking about peoples here on earth beyond just the Jewish people rather than aliens.

At the end of the day, as a Biblical Christian if it were demonstrated that there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, it wouldn’t alter my faith in any way as it would not in any way contradict Scripture. NASA found similar responses recently from representatives of the major religions of the world.

Actually it was Ray Bradbury who first got me to think about this topic. He wrote several short stories dealing with the possibility of alien life and the theological implications of such a discovery. Would such aliens need salvation? His short story The Fire Balloons considers what that might mean. In the short story The Man Bradbury suggests that Jesus would – if there were life on other planets – visit those planets as well. C.S. Lewis also prompted consideration of this theme with the first two books of his Space Trilogy.

It’s good for NASA to ask these questions and invite formal discussion on the topic, just as it’s good NASA continues to scan the skies. I just don’t think the biggest problems of any discovery of extraterrestrial life are likely to be theological in nature.

Old Testament Laws Today

December 26, 2021

An interesting article about the Old Testament rule that Israelite farmers needed to observe a sabbath year every – seventh year – from planting and harvesting crops (Exodus 23:10-12). I’m sure there were complicated issues of politics in Old Testament times as well as today. The directive was given for the express purpose of benefitting the poor (who had no fields of their own and could glean from whatever sprouted in their wealthier neighbors’ untended fields.

Nerding a Bit

December 22, 2021

I guess if I’m not to be proclaiming from the pulpit our Lord’s birth and how our celebration of that should be a pointed reminder that He’s coming back and that’s what we should be waiting for every day, I can at least geek out a bit regarding the winding and complicated nature of evil that is never so simple or isolated as we’d like to think.

For the Tolkien fans out there, a consideration of perhaps Peter Jackson’s biggest failure in his overall magnificent film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.

Following Up

December 19, 2021

Following yesterday’s post on the rather narrow focus of Covid-response measures (essentially vaccinations for everyone) I came upon this article from National Public Radio. It references “surge teams” created to assist hard-hit Covid areas and provided a link to more information. That led me to this White House press release from 12/2/21. While it doesn’t talk about building more healthcare infrastructure – temporary or permanent in nature – it does briefly describe several teams of personnel available for deployment nationwide, as well as funding measures to support locally-based groups of medical volunteers.

These are certainly good responses and I wish we heard more about them. Since it’s apparent already vaccinations alone are not going to stop Omicron or likely future strains of Covid – at least not to the extent we don’t have to worry about surges in cases and potential corresponding increases in hospitalizations – directing some serious thought and resources to additional infrastructure only makes sense, could help to provide jobs and economic stimulus to various areas, and would provide people more hope that we will get through this time one way or another.

I can’t take credit for these ideas (dang it!), but I can at least recognize that other people far better placed than myself are thinking about them.

Narrowing Solutions

December 18, 2021

We’re ramping up for a dire winter according to many predictions. The Omicron variant is widely believed to be far more transmissible than Delta even as early reports from South Africa and other places say it is less severe in the symptoms of infection. Or, you’re more likely to get it, but less likely to be hospitalized or die from it. On the whole good news if you presume (as I do) that Covid variations are not going to just disappear on their own and we are not going to suddenly develop bio-technology to eradicate them. Like the flu, Covid will continue to be around but will gradually grow less challenging as people develop better immune responses.

Thus far, the only solutions to yet another wave of Covid I’ve read focus on the need for vaccination, despite the fact many initial reports indicate vaccination does not prevent infection or even symptoms, but reduces the impact of infection. Or, getting the Omicron variant if you’re vaccinated should be less painful than if you get it and you aren’t vaccinated. Of course, I haven’t read many comparisons of the effects on vaccinated vs. non-vaccinated persons. If you have, send me a link. I surmise the lack of discussion about this is because vaccination is the solution we have culturally honed in on to the situation.

But if Covid will become endemic rather than pandemic (something common and expected as opposed to new or unfamiliar), the virus could continue mutating for some time, causing repeated spikes. While I pray this is not the case and the virus goes the way of other pandemics such as the Spanish Flu, which was really only extraordinarily deadly for 2-3 years, we can’t know that for sure. If it doesn’t, and there are recurring spikes, the problem is less a matter of keeping people from getting the virus than it is having the capacity to assist those who experience it more harshly and in potentially life-threatening ways.

Already cities and states and counties and countries are locking down again. While this may slow the transmission to some extent it certainly doesn’t stop it, as we’ve already seen in the various Covid waves thus far. But what it can do is minimize the number of people who have to go to the hospital. The concern ultimately is that we aren’t equipped to help those who are most likely to require hospitalization, that hospitals and ICUs will become overloaded and unable to help everyone who needs it.

I still marvel that no exploration of increasing our capacity (literal, our hospital bed capacity) has generated any notice or interest. We can’t shut down countries and states and cities indefinitely, but we could expand our hospital capacity to help more people who might require it. Considering we’ve spent already $3.5 trillion dollars on Covid-related relief, expanding capacity in New York City or Los Angeles seems like a good investment. At the very least, it could be good practice.

It’s not like there isn’t a plethora of real estate available that could be put to this use, even if temporarily. Creating the equivalent of higher-tech, more robust Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals seems like good practice to have. Beyond dealing with pandemic issues such experience could be valuable for other types of natural or national disasters. And if we had the capacity to handle the most serious cases Omicron might bring this winter, we could allow the virus to run it’s course in the hopes it is indeed less severe and could therefore provide additional levels of immune and antibody resistance to larger numbers of people more safely. There are reports that even for vaccinated people, contracting Covid further improves their immune response.

Our resolute determination to eliminate Covid may be valiant at one level, but it’s also a very narrow response. It would be nice to hear about other approaches to handling this pandemic so that it truly can transition to endemic status if our efforts to simply eliminate it fail. This sort of investment could economically benefit a much wider segment of our businesses than just the pharmaceutical companies.