Archive for January, 2014

A Mother’s Love, Contextualized

January 30, 2014

This Sunday (at least in the 3-year Revised Common Lectionary, adjusted-somewhat-arbitrarily-by-Lutherans-version) we observe the Presentation of our Lord.  (Luke 2:21-28).  Jesus is almost six weeks old at this point.  Mary has waited the appropriate amount of time (Leviticus 12) to have Jesus circumcised and then to await her time of ritual uncleanliness.  Now she and Joseph bring Jesus to the Temple.  

The Old Testament reading is from 1 Samuel 1 and is the story of another mother and another first-born son.  Another journey and another sacrifice.  The details are similar but different.  Hannah rather than Mary.  Shiloh rather than the Temple in Jerusalem.  Samuel rather than Jesus.  But the intentions are the same.  In keeping with God’s commands in Exodus 13, the two mothers bring their sons to the God who gave them their sons.  
Hannah had prayed for a child for a long time.  Mary conceived quite unexpectedly.  Like every other Hebrew child since the Exodus, God required that parents redeem them from his service.  Hannah goes to offer Samuel to remain in God’s service, as she had promised God.  Mary goes to redeem her son from such service.  Yet both children will grow into men who serve God with all of their lives.
Both scenes demonstrate the proper context of all motherly (and fatherly) love – the acknowledgement of God as the source of all life.  The understanding that every child is a gift from God to be cherished and nourished.  All things have a proper source, and the proper source of children is never solely the intentions or actions of a man and a woman, but rather the divine mystery of God’s purpose and plan.  
When we forget these things, when we begin to treat children as any other commodity or object in our life – something to be acquired or gotten rid of, something ultimately for our own purpose and pleasure, the natural order is subverted.  Life becomes trivialized.  We forget that there is a larger plan at play than our own personal preferences.  
We love because God first loved us.  Because God is before we are.  And because God is before we are, we trust rather than respond in fear.  We cry out in the anticipation of strength we never expected to possess.  We give praise where the praise is properly due – to the one who began it all with the Word in nothingness, and who brings it all to completion with the Word made flesh and alive where once He had been dead, ruling where once He had been subservient.  Because of (in part) a mother’s love in the proper context.

Great Food for Thought

January 30, 2014

Unlike many of the articles I see floating around on Facebook, I really, really, really like and agree with this one.  

Christians should focus on what their church is doing, rather on what they ought to do in order to become a big(ger) congregation.

Marriage and Sex

January 29, 2014

Bet that title caught your attention?

Thanks to J.P. for sending me this essay referring to Sunday’s Grammy Awards and the performance of Mr. & Mrs. Carter – aka Jay Z and Beyonce.  The author’s premise is that the married couple gave a smoldering and powerful testimony to the sexiness of marriage.  The author writes from a Christian vantage point on the issue, arguing that Christians should be happy about the performance and the message that it sends about how sexy marriage can be, drawing comparisons with the song/performance and the Biblical Song of Solomon.  
But this isn’t how fans are going to hear or see this song.
Nothing in the song or the performance is specific to marriage.  It’s about passion all right, but our culture teaches that passion can be found anywhere you want, with anyone you want.     And when the passion is gone, move on.  Nothing in this song contradicts that.  The song could be sung or grooved to by anyone, in any situation.  It’s rather coincidental that the performers are married.  
Coincidental because smoldering and powerful songs about sensuality and sexuality have defined the careers of both these people, and not just after they were married.  While there are undoubtedly far more qualified people to analyze the collective works of Jay Z and Beyonce to see if there is a shift in their music, philosophy, or theology regarding sexuality, I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that there isn’t any shift.  Therefore we shouldn’t read this song and performance as an ode to Biblical marriage.    
Christians are desperate to find affirmation of our beliefs and values in someone popular and hip.  It’s tempting to try and claim the reigning king and queen of hip and sexy for our own, but this is dangerous and myopic.  We need to be careful to identify momentary overlaps in expressions as just that and not necessarily anything more.  I wish Mr. & Mrs. Carter a life-long and happy marriage.  But let’s not try to appropriate them as spokespersons for Biblical marriage.  At least not until we have some evidence that this is actually what they profess.  

Wet Bar Wednesday – Failure

January 29, 2014

Mixing drinks is part art and part science.  It favors the creative streak in us, but doesn’t always reward that streak with a drink we’d repeat.  

Or even finish.
Don’t stress out about the occasional failure when trying a new drink.  If you think it was a problem with the recipe, try tweaking it.  If you just don’t like the results, get over it.  You can pour it out (or hand it off to a friend!) and start over again.  The more you experiment, the more you’ll get a feel for the type of drinks and types of liquors you like, and you can reduce the number of bad drinks you try.
Last night I tried a new recipe.  It was called a Baltic Murder Mystery, because whoever created it liked the color of the drink for a Baltic-themed party he was having.  I don’t like the name, but that’s OK because I don’t really care for the drink either, and probably won’t be making it again.  It’s very, very, very sweet.  If that’s your thing, then give this a shot.
  • 1 part creme de cassis
  • 1 part vodka
  • Top 7-Up or Sprite
Mix the creme de cassis and vodka and pour over ice in a tall glass.  Fill the remainder of the glass with 7-Up or Sprite and serve.  You can stir before you serve if you like, but there is a separation of the darker and lighter colors if you don’t.  Your guests will undoubtedly stir it themselves after you give it to them, so save yourself a few seconds and don’t stir.
Creme do cassis is a liquor made from black currants.  It isn’t creamy – much more syrupy in fact.  It is delicious, but intensely sweet.  The vodka contributes very little taste but ups the alcohol potency of the drink, and the 7-Up or Sprite just adds to the sweetness.
To try and offset the sweetness, I squeezed a bit of lemon juice in and mixed it up.  That tempered the sweetness somewhat.  I could have added more lemon juice but I was lazy and just drank it as is.  It’s a pretty drink to look at, and would work well as a dessert substitute!

Awkward Archaeology

January 28, 2014

I love archaeology.  It’s fascinating stuff that I am really glad other people dig (get it?) because I would never ever ever want to be out in the middle of the desert digging in the dirt myself.  I love archaeological results – other people’s archaeological results.

But I don’t always like their conclusions.
Take this little ditty from last week about the translation of an ancient Mesopotamian text that tells a story similar in at least a few respects to the story of Noah in the Biblical book of Genesis.  Well, similar in at least one respect – animals being put on a boat in pairs.  I can’t tell what else it says that may be relevant, other than instructions for building a different kind of boat than what Noah was instructed to.  As per Genesis 6, Noah’s boat was not circular.
What I don’t like is the assumption that this Mesopotamian text influenced the Genesis story, rather than the other way around (or rather than there being more than one account of a massive flood, not related to one another in terms of them copying off of each other).  The Mesopotamian find is from roughly 4000 BC.  That’s certainly not outside the range of possibility for Biblical stories to be circulating already, stories that may have found their way into Moses’ writing them down around 1500-1400 BC.
Similar things don’t require that they be linked together somehow.  If there was a flood of the type described in Genesis, it would only make sense that there would be different memories of the event as people repopulated and spread out.  Those various accounts might gradually change over time to incorporate variances in ship-building preferences.  
This find doesn’t necessarily have to have influenced the Biblical text.  It could easily have been influenced by the Biblical stories itself.  Or they might be completely unrelated, yet describing the same event.  
Yep, I sure love archaeology.  But it’s good to remember that not all our conclusions about it are necessarily right.  Particularly if the conclusions are juicy enough to merit a book that somebody hopes will sell well.  But finding old things in the dirt?  That’s very cool, regardless.

Sanctity of Living

January 27, 2014

January is traditionally the time when many conservative Christian congregations focus on the issue of abortion.  One Sunday is designated Sanctity of Life Sunday, and pastors are encouraged to preach on pro-life related themes.  While I’m not a big fan of having Sundays designated for particular causes, I agree whole-heartedly that the issue of the sanctity of life is a worthy one.

But I suspect we don’t do a very good job at really getting in to what that means.
I perused a flyer of possible bulletin inserts for Sanctity of Life Sunday.  Almost every single one of them was about sexual purity, rather than the sanctity of life.  I understand the connection they’re trying to draw – if we behave ourselves sexually then we don’t have unwanted pregnancies that might result in abortions.  But this is a very, very limited view of the sanctity of life.  And focusing on sexual purity misses the point completely, unfortunately.
The issue of the sanctity of life is perhaps misleading.  It might lead us to suspect that the only issue is making sure that someone gets born rather than killed.  Given the 56 million or so babies who have been killed in the last 40 years, that’s no small focus, to be sure!  But these days, the assault on life is over a much broader line.  
Perhaps we should stop talking only about the sanctity of life, and start talking about the sanctity of living.  
This is where the argument is often made, isn’t it?  Yes, it’s a hollow, false argument a majority of the time, I believe.  But the argument is made that some lives just aren’t worth living.  Some lives are just so terrible that it is better to deny life than to affirm it in a reduced or complicated fashion.  That’s an argument that I think probably finds more traction in people’s hearts and minds than the more simplistic argument that inconvenient babies should die.  We imagine ourselves placed suddenly into that position and we begin backing up and shaking our heads.  Oh no, no-no.  I couldn’t do that.  I don’t know how I’d make it.  
Truth be told, most of us can’t give a very coherent answer about how we made it where we are right now.
The sanctity of living embraces the full spectrum of human life, not just birth, and not just old age and death.  It covers all of the myriad ups and downs that come in between.  And when we begin talking about these things, and finding ways to come alongside people who are struggling to live them out, we learn a great deal more about the issue of life and living than simple protesting alone.
Sanctity of living means affirming the worth and potential of everyone, even if they may not seem to be equipped the way the rest of us assume we all should be equipped.  Consider this story about a man with Down’s Syndrome who has opened a restaurant with his family.  I can’t imagine the struggles as well as the joys that family has experienced in the living of this man’s life.  Yet instead of focusing on what he couldn’t do, they found a way to affirm the sanctity of living, and what a difference that has made for everyone who knows him.  
Here’s another story about the sanctity of living, and how a family determined that a tragic accident would not be the end of their son’s life, but rather they would continue to make him a part of their lives to the best of his – and their – ability.
Or I can think back on the life of a friend I met over 15 years ago at our campus ministry in Arizona.  He had MS, and his parents had been able to provide for him so that he left home in Missouri to come to Arizona to get his bachelor’s degree (curiously enough, at the school where I was teaching).  He was in a wheelchair and needed people to help him get up and walk every so often to stretch his muscles so they wouldn’t permanently tighten up and constrict his movement further.  His parents would alternate coming out to stay with him and hired assistants.  He made lots of friends at school who helped him as well.  He graduated and returned home to Missouri and his family.  He passed away recently, a firm Christian.  His family (not practicing Christians) understood instinctively the importance of the sanctity of living, and had worked hard to ensure that their son experienced this.
These are amazing feel-good stories that mask an unimaginable amount of work and effort.  They are also examples of people who chose to affirm the sanctity of living.  I know that it wasn’t easy (at least in the example of my friend).  But I’m pretty positive that they wouldn’t choose differently, if they were able to go back and alter the past.  Affirming the sanctity of living changes everyone it touches.
It’s not just about sex or abortion or euthanasia.  It’s about all the days that surround these events, the days that shape us into who we will be when we have to deal with these pivotal events.  This is what sanctity of living creates.  

Reading Ramblings – February 2, 2014

January 26, 2014

Date:  The  Presentation of our Lord, February 2, 2014

Texts: 1 Samuel 1:21-28; Psalm 84;  Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-32(33-40)

Context: Traditionally celebrated in the Western Church as Candlemas (because church candles were blessed on this day), the Presentation of Our Lord occurs 40 days after Christmas. Christians were celebrating this occasion as early as the mid-fourth century.  Mary observes proper Jewish law by bringing Jesus to the Temple to be blessed and herself declared ritually clean. 

1 Samuel 1:21-28 — We sometimes see glimpses, foreshadowings of the events of Jesus’ life in the stories of the Old Testament.  Hannah brings her son to the priests at Shiloh; Mary brings her son to the Temple in Jerusalem.  Another miraculous child.  Another child that will be devoted to the Lord.   Hannah’s sacrifice is impressive—a young bull as well as flour and wine.  But her offering of her child is a greater sacrifice for her personally.  Mary will also know the pain of having her child sacrificed, but in a far different manner than Hannah.  In both cases there is a priest on hand who is knowledgeable about the situation—Eli who had prayed for Hannah to conceive, and Simeon who has been told by the Holy Spirit that he will see the Messiah.  

Psalm 84— Both Hannah and Mary take their sons to the Lord’s house—Hannah going to worship at Shiloh and Mary to the Temple in Jerusalem.  This psalm is a beautiful praise of the Lord’s house, emphasizing that it is better to be there than anywhere else.  While the two women in the readings today found the Lord’s house in a different place, their joy at being near the Lord’s dwelling place would have been the same, as ours can and should be today.  Where two or three gather the Lord is with them as well, consecrating their gathering and creating his home among them every bit as much as at Shiloh or Jerusalem.  What a privilege we enjoy to be in the Lord’s house in many different situations!

Hebrews 2:14-18 — Since this is a festival Sunday, we pause in our continuous reading from 1 Corinthians to switch to this passage from Hebrews that is closer in keeping with the theme of the day.  In these verses Paul eloquently argues the rationale for the Incarnation of the Son of God.  Jesus came in human form in order to redeem humanity.  He came to redeem us through death from the death and sin that holds us captive.  The ministry of Jesus is not to spiritual beings, but to human beings and so He became like us.  In doing so, He now understands us intimately—far better than we understand ourselves, either.  Knowing what it means to be tempted, He can truly intercede for us worthily.  He empathizes with us.  He knows our suffering and our struggles through experience and therefore is swift to offer forgiveness as well as help in our moments of temptation.  Jesus, presented at the Temple, becomes the great and final high priest between God and mankind.  He does not merely offer a sacrifice on our behalf, he is the sacrifice on our behalf.

Luke 2:22-32(33-40) — We see again that Jesus conforms with all of the expectations of God’s people, and that his parents begin and continue this pattern.  Based on the command of God in Exodus 13, Mary and Joseph come to redeem their son, to buy him back from the Lord through a small payment ritual.  As well, they come to offer the proper sacrifice for Mary to be acknowledged as ritually clean again after 40 days of ritual uncleanliness following giving birth.  These are the expected things.

And if Mary and Joseph have not already become accustomed to unexpected things concerning their young son, they are confronted with it once again.  Simeon and then Anna come at the Holy Spirit’s prompting to offer prophecy and praise to God.  Simeon’s praise is directed to God for fulfilling his promise to Simeon to see the Messiah.  While Simeon is probably not asking God to immediately take his life, he is acknowledging that he is satisfied to die, because God has fulfilled his promise to him. 

That promise is more than just for Simeon, that promise is a light for the Gentiles as well as for God’s people Israel (consider the reading from Matthew 4/Isaiah 9 last week).  This child is the embodiment of God’s salvation that will be made available to everyone and anyone through faith.  Simeon concludes with prophetic words for Jesus’ parents and particularly Mary.  Their son has a mighty future ahead of him that will create both loyal trust and faith as well as fervent opposition.  This will reveal the hearts of many people (based on which side they choose), and will end up with great sorrow to Mary .  Anna appears to give praise to God and to begin telling anyone who would listen about what God was planning for his people. 


Jesus is presented at the Temple as any firstborn male Hebrew child would ideally be.  But his presentation is anything but ordinary.  As Jesus is faithful to the dictates of God’s people, his identity is repeatedly affirmed as greater and more than just a son of Abraham.  Here at the Temple, just as at his baptism in the Jordan, Jesus fully identifies with his people, but is declared to be more and greater than his people.  He is, in fact, the representation of all people in his single self.  His actions link him to all of humanity, so that his sacrificial death and glorious resurrection can be truly said to be for the benefit of all humanity. 


And Dontcha Come Back No More, No More, No More, No More

January 25, 2014

Every Friday I’m at the local county jail with a group of half a dozen or more guys, talking about the Bible and the Christian faith and life.  Most of the guys I meet are there for addiction issues – possession or use or selling drugs.  This is not the first time that most of them have been in jail.  Statistics say it is likely not to be their last time either.  In some ways, that’s good because it may be the difference between them being alive or dead.  Forced detox in jail is almost overwhelmingly viewed as a good thing by the inmates themselves.

But from a taxpayer’s perspective, it’s an expensive proposition.  I’d far rather that these guys got some help that might eliminate their addictions and help them get on with living healthier, productive lives.  That’s why I’m at the Rescue Mission every Wednesday, having similar discussions with the guys in their 1-year residential treatment program.  I want these guys to be successful, and so should you.  If for no other reason than that it’s a lot less expensive if they get over their addictions than if they keep relapsing.
There are plenty of much better reasons as well, but every citizen of our nation has a vested interest in what’s going on with our legal and prison systems.  And what’s going on more often than not is that the system works to keep people coming back.  Not that individuals necessarily do – I know several wonderful people in the legal and prison systems that are committed to really helping people as much as they can so they don’t return.  But at the end of the day, the system functions by people coming back.  
What if that weren’t the case?  What if everyone was equally vested in people not coming back?  Some communities (and companies) are beginning to explore this shift of focus.  Social impact bonds are the mechanism, and if you want information on them, here’s a great primer.  For even more information, check out these links.  It’s a bit complicated, but I like the direction it attempts to take.  I don’t have a problem with private industry making a modest profit if it overall lowers the impacts on taxpayers (ie. it remains cheaper to pay industry a profit for their up front investment if performance criteria are met than to pay to keep putting people back in jail).  The key issues would be oversight and a careful detailing of what the performance criteria are (how they are determined and quantified) before investors get their return.  

Meanwhile, in Baltimore…

January 25, 2014

Look, up in the sky!  It’s a bird!  It’s a plane!  It’s a military surveillance dirigible!  

I feel safer by the moment, don’t you?  At least I would if I lived anywhere within 340 miles of Baltimore.  
Or not.

Movies to See

January 24, 2014

A couple of movies have caught my eye.  I have no idea if either one will be as good as their hype and possibility suggest, but we shall see.  

Hee hee, get it?  
The first is the more obvious of the two – the blockbuster styled Noah.  Set for release in late March, this film features, quite literally, an all-star cast and a powerful special effects emphasis.  Christians are already squealing about a movie that they hope will draw interest back to the Bible.  I think those hopes are grossly misplaced, and my hope is that the movie (which must of necessity largely consist of non-Biblical material) won’t misread and mislead too far afield.  
The second movie just debuted at Sundance and is entitled I Origins.  The review that got my attention says it may be a really good movie.  Then again, it may not.
Both of these films are of interest to me obviously because they grapple with issues of faith.  In very different ways.  My hands down all-time greatest recommendation for a faith-oriented film is the intensely disturbing is Robert Duvall’s The Apostle.  Not the greatest of movies per se, but one of the most honest depictions of the idea of simul iustus et peccator – at the same time sinner and saint – that I have ever seen.  
What movies stir or challenge your faith?