Archive for December, 2012

Friday Fragments

December 14, 2012

Rather than a single unified theme today, here is a collection of stories I found interesting while trolling for blog-fodder this morning.

  • Here is a cool visualization of the evolution of IRS form 1040.  No, it hasn’t gotten any easier.
  • While I prefer the historicity of the real Monopoly game, it’s interesting to see how the basic board data can be reduced to largely colors and symbols.  
  • Living long and prospering (at least in terms of our health) may yet be in the realm of science fiction, according to this infographic and article.
  • Do you believe in global warming?  Apparently more of you do.  Is your beef (if you have one) with global warming as a phenomenon, or the alleged reasons for global warming?  This article makes a big deal of the fact that more people think that global warming is a real thing.  Let’s ignore for a moment the fact that we’ve only really been monitoring this seriously for 100 years.  Let’s ignore for the moment that scientists assure us that the earth has repeatedly gone through cycles of heating and cooling – sometimes to extremes.  I don’t know many people who would outright deny that temperatures have been getting warmer, though they might acknowledge that within the context of either of the two facts just mentioned.  But I do know people – myself included – who are not convinced (based on the two facts mentioned above) that mankind is the source of this warming and therefore the solution to it.  
Happy Friday, everyone!

Denial of Community

December 13, 2012

There are plenty of things one needs to contemplate when mortality becomes less of a theory and more of a stark reality with somewhat measurable time frames.  

If you are a Christian, then you should be a fixed part of a worshiping community.  A place where you know others and you are known, where the Christian life finds traction in a slippery world.  If you don’t have this, find it.  It may be a difficult process.  Plugging yourself into a group of people is hard work and intimidating for most of us.  But for the Christian it is not an option.  We are called into community both descriptively (Acts 2:42-47) and proscriptively (Hebrews 10:23-25).  
For those blessed enough to already be part of a church family, consider that church family when you find out that you don’t have long to live.  Repeatedly I’ve encountered people who have been lifetime members of a congregation, yet when they receive the news that they are going to die soon, they clam up.  They don’t communicate with the congregation (sometimes they don’t even communicate with their pastor!).  They also prohibit their spouses and family members from sharing the news beyond the boundaries they determine.
I know there are reasonable reasons for this.  They don’t want to burden others with their problems.  They don’t want to draw undue attention to themselves.  They lack the energy simply to deal with the well-wishes and calls and cards of their friends.  They want to maintain a semblance of normalcy, even if it creates a bubble of denial.  Particularly for people of a certain generation, while they would be willing to cut off an arm to help someone else, acknowledging that they need help is almost sinful.  
But consider this.  You wouldn’t withhold this sort of information from your blood-family, would you?  Well, some might, I suppose.  But most folks seem to acknowledge that it’s only fair to tell their spouse, their children, their siblings, their parents.  
Tell your church family, too.  Just like your blood family, your church family needs time to deal with the news.  They need time to begin grieving.  They need time to be reassured of the hope that Christians live and die in.  They need the opportunity to pray for you (and better yet, with you).  They need the opportunity to be of whatever help they can be.  
You can request that people not send cards, or even that they limit their calls and visits.  People will understand this sort of request.  But not telling them, that’s going to be something that ends up hurting them.  They won’t understand that request.  They won’t understand why you could spend years of your life in fellowship, yet withhold news of this type.  We sometimes think that hiding the truth is a form of love and care for others.  More often than not, it’s just a form of misguided selfishness.  I know that sounds harsh, but it remains true.  
Remember also your spouse and family in this.  If you force them to keep this knowledge to themselves, you are not giving them the opportunity to seek the support and encouragement and prayer that they need to deal with your approaching death.  If not for your own sake, then for theirs, be willing to allow them to share this with your community of faith and not just your blood relatives.
As Christians, we profess that death is not the end.  This means we need to live as though this is true, and that doesn’t change when death moves from our peripheral vision to our direct line of sight.  In approaching our death, we have the opportunity to bear a powerful witness to the people in our lives, in our blood and church families, regarding the nature of our hope.  Embrace this opportunity.  You only get it once.

Tradition & Vocation

December 12, 2012

As a commentary on cultural disintegration, I find instances of individual exceptionalism in the context of long-standing tradition to be an interesting study.  So this article on the first person ever to not wear the traditional bear fur hat while guarding Buckingham Palace to be rather interesting.  

The article doesn’t make much of a big deal about the situation.  It only mentions that this is the first time a turban has been substituted for the bearskin hat.  It doesn’t indicate if there have been other, different exceptions made in the past, though the general tone leads me to suspect it hasn’t.  
While the hats have been used in various capacities over four hundred years or so, this particular tradition of the Scots Guards goes back to the defeat of Napoleon’s forces at Waterloo in 1815.  The hats were worn by Napoleon’s Grenadiers, and the English adopted the hat as a sign of their victory.  
Why, after 180 years, is the decision made now to allow an exemption?  I can certainly understand the man’s devotion to his religion.  That’s commendable.  But I find it interesting that he entered the military knowing he intended to wear his turban continuously.  That may not be a big deal in other contexts, as the Sikhs have been an important part of the English military for at least 150 years.  It doesn’t seem to be an issue in other military contexts.  
Did he intentionally enter into this particular group for service, knowing of the tradition in advance and knowing that he would try to alter that tradition?  Was he placed into this particular group for service, knowing that he had a strong religious devotion and would wish to wear his turban continually?  In other words, who has the agenda that they’re trying to play out here?  
To my way of thinking, our vocational options are limited or defined to a great extent by what we believe about the universe and our place in it.  Religion is something that ought to shape the sorts of vocations we enter into.  There are any number of vocations that I would not enter into because of my religious beliefs (whether or not they were legalized societally or not, such as a distributor of medical marijuana).  In other words, I know by my faith that there are some jobs I’m just not going to be able to do while remaining faithful to my religion.  I wouldn’t enter into those vocations with the intent of trying to modify them to suit my religious preferences.  I don’t expect to be the exception to the rule – my religion would simply prevent me from entering into a vocation where I had to violate my religious beliefs.  
It just strikes me as odd, and another example of how long-standing traditions seem to be discarded to suit personal interests and preferences.  Sometimes this can be necessary – not all traditions are good.  Other times, it seems to serve no other purpose than to demonstrate that the individual should always trump the group.  I suspect that’s not a good trend either.

The Source of Human Rights

December 12, 2012

A colleague & classmate of mine posted a link to this article yesterday on Facebook.  It’s a great  observational essay on the pivotal role of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures in defining our modern conceptions of human rights.  Human rights are a big issue that many people like to talk about in the world but which ultimately (as Syria & North Korea both amply demonstrate) these same people are willing to do very little about.  Governments that simply choose not to abide by basic human rights definitions are free to slaughter their citizens or keep them in abject poverty and starvation because, after all, military sovereignty ultimately trumps (and therefore defines at a practical level?) human rights.

A parishioner forwarded me this blog post today on a related theme (but more specific because we’re starting an in-depth study on the book of Genesis).  
I’m curious if there are other sacred texts that provide similar, revolutionary definitions of human rights?  The Q’uran does not, as it does permit people to be killed or enslaved because of a difference of religion.  I’m not as directly familiar with other sacred texts though.  I’m assuming that the Hindu Vedas are either silent on the subject or don’t support the idea of human rights in the same way, since the practice of segregating people into classes is part and parcel of Hindu practice, and those at the lowest rungs of that caste system are left to fend for themselves in squalor.  
It should be quickly noted in this discussion, that the Bible does have some particularly brutal moments when particular groups of people are marked out for complete destruction.  I’ve talked about this before here, and it’s an important thing to come to grips with.  The key points that lead us to faithfully treat these isolated incidents as something unique and separate from the overarching Judeo-Christian perspective on human rights are, briefly:
1. These are best understood as moments of demonstration of divine judgment.  God’s people are seeing first-hand the ultimate fate of those who don’t know who the true God is.  These isolated incidents in the conquest of the Promised Land are instructive to the Israelites, and should be to us as well.  The instruction is in the context of sin and its consequences.  The question that should be better asked from this perspective is not “why did God command this for these certain cities/peoples?”, but rather, “why does God not command this for all peoples, since we all – through sin – fall outside of his expectations for us?” 
2.  These are exceptions – it was not the standard battle practice permitted to the Israelites by their God.  
The emphasis on the link between the Judeo-Christian Scriptures and human rights is important because they form the normative baseline for our concept of human rights and the most basic of what those rights actually are.  Yet we live in a period of history where this baseline is being discarded, and the assumption is being asserted in the United States of all places, that, contrary to the assertions of the Declaration of Independence, the government is actually the source of human rights, rather than their guardian.  Our government is ceasing to act in the role of protector of human rights imbued in all peoples by their creator God, and instead is moving into the role of that God by dictating what rights ought to exist – even when those rights ultimately contradict the rights originally vouchsafed as non-negotiable – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Once you erase the source of human rights from the picture, you also erase the protection of those human rights.  What the State grants, the State can take away.  

Reading Ramblings – December 16, 2012

December 9, 2012

Reading
Ramblings

Date: December 16, 2012,
Third Sunday of Advent

Texts:
Zephaniah 3:14-20, Psalm 85; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 7:18-28(29-35)

Contextual
Notes:
As we move farther into the season of Advent,
we begin to look more specifically at the birth of the Christ child.
The third Sunday of Advent is traditionally known as Gaudete
Sunday. It gets this name from the first line (in Latin) of the
Roman Catholic mass for this Sunday. The pink candle is used on this
Sunday as a sign of rejoicing that Advent is nearly over and the
birth of our Savior is nearly here.

Zephaniah 3:14-20 –
Once again we hear a beautiful prophecy of hope and joy after harsh
words first against Jerusalem and then the surrounding nations. It
is interesting in the progression of the chapter as a whole that it
is first the outside nations and then the people of God who are
restored after the Lord’s judgment!

Psalm 85: The first
three verses of this psalm remind the Lord how He has dealt with his
people in the past, that though He has been angry at them before, He
has restored them. Based on this, verses 4-7 ask the Lord to restore
his people once again and turn from his anger. Verses 8-9 anticipate
the Lord’s response. The Lord will tell his people why He is angry
at them, and they will listen and change their ways. Verses 10-13
anticipate how things will be when the Lord restores his people and
turns his favor upon them again.

Philippians 4:4-7 –
A very fitting verse for Gaudete Sunday! The theme of rejoicing
comes loud and clear in these verses. The context of this
exhortation to rejoicing is interesting, however. Paul is enjoining
two believers towards reconciliation and unity. Rejoicing has a
purpose as well as a source – the purpose is to redirect hearts at
conflict towards reconciliation in the light of what has been given
to them in Jesus Christ. Trusting in God as we make our needs known
to him, we receive his peace. Anything we can ask for is asked for
as we simultaneously acknowledge all we have been given already.
Therefore we have peace – not peace that necessarily comes from
having our particular prayers answered in the way we’d prefer at the
time we’d prefer, but a peace that comes from God to guard our hearts
against anxiety and worry and fear.

Luke 7:18-28(29-35):
Is
Jesus good news or the Good News? John sends his disciples to find
out. Is Jesus the Messiah they have been waiting for? Jesus doesn’t
simply answer yes or no. For the next hour or so Jesus fulfills the
prophecies of the Old Testament, giving sight to the blind, healing,
and driving out demons. Are these the actions of the Messiah?
John’s disciples bear not just words and assurances back to John,
they tell him all that they saw Jesus do. Was this a comfort to
John? To know that the Messiah had arrived, even if he himself was
still in prison? John should give us pause in our prayer lives.
The measure of the goodness and faithfulness of God or the validity
of his Messiah is not whether or not our lives are going exactly the
way we would prefer them to or not. Rejoicing is an act of the will
based on the promises of God fulfilled in Jesus Christ, not merely an
emotional response to nice things happening!  

What Do You Read?

December 8, 2012

It started with this editorial alarming us as to changes in the education standards linked to Federal funding that will have high school students reading policy documents and political editorials rather than literature.  

Curious, I decided to look at the actual standards to the best of my ability.  If you need trouble sleeping, you can read this site.  Of course, in saying that, I appear to be validating the very concerns that the new core competency standards are trying to address – teaching young people to read complicated documents for understanding.  The effort to reform education towards this end has elicited quite a bit of controversy – not that you’d know it by scanning Internet headlines.  
This Washington Post article from two years ago indicates mixed reviews at best for the new standards.  This pre-election Washington Post article discusses the controversy further.  And this article last week on the topic continues to see a great deal of unhappiness with the standards.  
Having taught in a college for the last 12 years, I can vouch that there is a need for students to be able to read complicated material and discern meaning as well as formulate critical evaluations and questions to interact with the material.  Frankly, this need is the same whether I was teaching a course on Shakespeare or biometric security, on the Crusades or on logic.  The majority of students find complicated material to be rather boring, with the exception of complicated material relevant (or perceived as relevant) to their own interests or aspirations.  I routinely ask my students each semester what they’ve been reading, and I routinely receive responses that indicate that they either don’t read, or only read textbooks and other technical manuals.
I don’t think that the issue is one of what texts we use to teach kids how to read complex articles for understanding.  I disagree with using policy documents for that because understanding what something says is different from being able to see that document and what it says with a broader perspective that can equip you to question whether what it says is true, or beneficial, or necessary.  Literature can do both.  Policy documents can’t.
The larger question is how to teach students to value these skills, to see them as both personally and societally beneficial.  How do we teach them to analyze a bureaucratic edifice that functions in large part precisely by being incomprehensible and overwhelming – not just to the average citizen but to the men and women charged with passing legislation.  How do we teach them to begin demanding that this sort of documentation ought to be made more readily available and more easily understood?  Or that drafting legislation that is thousands of pages long ought to be the first red flag that something fishy is about to happen?  
You can do that with great literature.  I don’t think you can do it with policy documentation, unless you’re going to equip kids with proper logic skills and then provide them with documentation representative of both sides of an issue.  Are you going to teach them to be conversant with the web sites and other resources where primary source documentation is accessible?  Are we developing apps for that, let alone teaching why using such apps ought to be common sense?
You can change what the kids read, but this isn’t going to magically make them into better informed citizens.  Having elected leaders unable to compromise, unwilling to make personal sacrifices in order to fix big problems, and generally ignoring their own directives to themselves as well as the directives they promised to their electorate is not a recipe for cultivating new generations of politically astute and engaged students.  

What Do You Think?

December 7, 2012

A belated thanks to Lois for this article link.  It’s a post-election, biased (the Republicans hardly received a “drubbing”, based on the closeness of the actual vote – not the electoral college votes)article on where different conservative candidates stand on the issue of the age of the earth.  

This might seem like an odd thing to focus on, but it is being used (in this article and elsewhere) as somewhat of a litmus test for rationality.  The author of this article asserts that “science education advocates” – whoever and whatever that means – feel that conservative candidates who won’t endorse the theory of evolution and the associated timelines are either “pandering” to their political base or genuinely stupid, unwilling to embrace “basic scientific principles”.  Both are disconcerting to these advocates.  No counter-point is acknowledged or provided.
We’re being faced with a Copernicus-esque sort of situation here.  By “we”, I mean primarily Christians who reject evolution, and are willing to question some of the “basic scientific principles” that science “advocates” clearly think cannot be questioned.  Copernicus was chastised by the Roman Catholic Church for suggesting that the earth was not the center of the universe, but rather the sun was.  Frankly, I find Biblical statements on this issue far more tenuous than those on the nature of the creation of the universe, so it is not surprising that for rank and file Christians who believe the Bible to be a special book and therefore to be trusted more than other books, the issue of evolution and corresponding efforts to date the age of the world is going to cause some issue.
The assumption is growing that anyone who questions scientific consensus on the age of the world, and also the theory of evolution, is not rational.  It won’t be left any longer to be a matter of private faith or personal belief.  It is not going to be accepted that some people are left unconvinced of the allegedly airtight evidence backing up evolutionary theory with correspondingly massive time-frames.  In articles such as the one referenced above, the implied conclusion is fairly obvious:  irrational people who deny evolutionary theory and associated dating assumptions on the age of the earth are not fit to be leaders.  
Is this a reasonable argument to make?  Why or why not?

Lutheran Fame

December 7, 2012

No, not mine.  

One of the blog’s I scan daily and appreciate for its intelligence and theological astuteness is Dr. Gene Veith’s Cranach: The Blog of Veith.  I sometimes use topics that he is addressing or sources that he is citing as inspiration for my own take on things, but I try to avoid it.  He’s much smarter than I am, and more eloquent.  Most of the time, it seems silly to try and add to what he has already said.
Today he announced that he has agreed to have his blog hosted by patheos.com, a multi-faith site full of blogs and articles on any number of different faiths.  He retains full control of his content, and he is likely to see some compensation for his troubles.  He asked his readers if this was OK with them.  
I read the comments with hesitation.  Lutherans are, after all, a pretty insular lot.  For being the original evangelicals, we prefer people to come to us to talk rather than us going to them.  We tend to publish in our own circles rather than seeking a voice in the larger marketplace of theological contributions.  Would Veith’s readers echo that insularity, or wish him Godspeed in the dreaded task of making the Gospel known to a larger group of people?
I am happy to say that, as of writing this, all the comments have been positive.  Nobody has weighed in to warn of the dangers of syncretism by being associated with a non-Lutheran site.  It’s good that people understand that our goal is to communicate the Gospel to anyone and everyone – no exceptions!  That will require us to rub shoulders more with the world around us.  This is a good thing, and I wish Dr. Veith the best.  

GIGO

December 6, 2012

Because sometimes, Thursdays need to challenge us a little bit, I present the following, unadorned by frivolous commentary, for your edification.  

No need to thank me.  

Famously Yours

December 5, 2012

I’ve seen a few reports about a viral video of music mogul Jay-Z riding on a New York City subway.  He sits to a lady who doesn’t recognize him until the end of their brief conversation when he tells her his full name.  People seem to find it cute or humorous that the woman doesn’t know him on sight.  Although the commotion about him and his entourage clue her in that he must be someone of import, she only recognizes him when he tells her his whole name.

While, like the woman in the video, I’m familiar with Jay-Z by name, I certainly wouldn’t have known who he was just by looking at him.  I’ll assume this means I’m just as clueless as she is.  But it makes me ponder the nature of fame, and how many famous people we would recognize just by seeing them out and about.  Living in a fairly nice area of California, I don’t often assume I’m going to see celebrities wandering around, though the odds are certainly better in this town than in many, many, many other places.  Maybe I should be paying more attention.  
Maybe I should care more.  Or maybe it just means I’m out of touch with pop culture, or that I separate the knowledge of pop culture from the idea that the fleeting icons and stars are anyone real.  In an age of Photoshop and Internet fame, I don’t expect these people to be out shopping or riding subways.  Is that part of the definition of fame, the ability to rise above the activities that everyone else does?  If we understood the famous to be essentially just like us, would they still be famous?