Archive for February, 2014

Tragedy Amidst the Ashes

February 27, 2014

Next Wednesday is Ash Wednesday.  So begins my favorite liturgical season of the year – Lent.  

I’m sure it has to do with the peculiarities of my personality and tastes, but Lent is to me the most dramatic and powerful of the liturgical seasons.  Easter is of course the greatest and most important season – without which there would be no point in Lent.  Pentecost is exciting as we consider the Holy Spirit’s continued work in the Church, but let’s face it, it goes on too long and loses punch.  Advent and Christmas are full of traditions, but many of them aren’t related so much to worship, outside of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  
But Lent…Lent is redolent with so many sensory, visceral moments and themes.  The cold, fragrant grit of the ashes on Ash Wednesday.  The flickering movements of the palms on Palm Sunday (no, we’re not going to argue about whether or not Holy Week should be considered Lent or not, so calm down).  Darkness and candlelight and the final, echoing boom of the strepitus of the closing tomb on Good Friday that always makes us jump no matter how we try to brace ourselves for it.  It’s an amazing season.
It is also a season we desperately need.  It is far easier to envision ourselves as the redeemed saints after Easter than it is to acknowledge our depraved need for salvation in Lent.  In a culture obsessed with personal best and achievement, Lent is the cold dash of water in the face that reminds us that graduating from Harvard is not our goal personally or for our children.  It won’t do what we most need to be done in our lives.  For that, we need Lent to remind us what we really are under our pretenses and designer labels – ashes and dust.  So much the greater joy on Easter morning!
As much as I love this season and the launching point in ashes on Ash Wednesday, not everyone agrees, so I read with interest this entry from a blog an  associate of mine participates in.  He makes a good point about the nature of the ashes – what they are intended for and what they easily become in our sinful pride.  
I don’t agree that we are tragic figures (from an objective standpoint), but I would definitely agree that we like to think of ourselves as tragic.  Essentially good but with one or two issues – perhaps major ones – that invariably trip us up.  Essentially worthwhile on our own recognizance, until we crash to the ground.  I suspect that when we can finally see ourselves as we really are (thanks to C.S. Lewis for helping me to imagine that), we will not find our old, sinful selves tragic.  We will see us for the self-serving, self-seeking, grubby and shabby little things we have become in slavery to sin.  It will be to the greater glory and praise of our heavenly Father that He could continue to see us as we were intended to be, as He intended to restore us.  It will be to the greater glory and praise of God the Son that He would consent to be humiliated by taking on our identity in order to accomplish that redemption.  
Our situation is tragic, but it is tragic on a much broader scale than the personal, I imagine.  
In any event, I look forward to making and explaining and sharing the ashes.  I look forward to that tactile expression and confession and reminder of who and what I am destined to be were it not for the overwhelming love and grace of God the Father through Jesus Christ as revealed to me by God the Holy Spirit.  It would be tacky to wish you happy Lent, but I look forward to traveling that bitter road with you this year.
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When Perspectives Must Be Fact

February 26, 2014

I appreciate this op-ed piece the other day on the confusing nature of science and those who insist that it is not confusing.  

It is popular to portray complex issues as very simple ones and to villify those who disagree with your particular position as evil or stupid or both.  It is not a tactic reserved for one color of the political spectrum, or even just the political spectrum.  But the tide today seems rolling in favor of those who see humankind as the problem to be solved, and the ultimate source of the solution all in the same bundle.  Science is the religion they trust to provide the answers.  And if reality doesn’t always match up with expectations, this simply is all the more reason to have faith that science is right.  
Science is a wonderful thing and it has provided a lot of good and has sometimes had some rough shakes along the way.  But it is by no means insulated as an art or as individual practitioners thereof from dishing out the same rough treatment using the same methodologies as those it might have suffered from in the past.  
Even good ideas, or what appear to be good ideas, can be more complicated than they are popularly portrayed, ultimately doing a disservice to scientific endeavors.  And a lot of people are enlisted to push the message of scientific faith while at the same time omitting or being ignorant of a lot of the factors involved.
I enjoy Penn & Teller’s irreverent form of magic.  But videos like this one (beware, harsh language) aren’t overly helpful in the continued quest for greater understanding that science purports to be about.  Rejecting the claims of those who disagree with you out of hand doesn’t inform debate.  It doesn’t contribute to anything other than polarizing people in support or opposition to a position that is more complicated (as per the essay above) than most people realize.  
The video makes a point.  But it makes the point with no nuance.  No acknowledgement of a myriad of factors that might influence the data – both in support of or against their position.  There are assumptions that all vaccines are created equally and equally effectively.  There is no acknowledgement that many of the vaccines now presumed to be necessary are for things that are not, by and large, fatal or life-threatening.  There is no treatment of the issue of how many different vaccinations children receive, and how early and how closely together (oftentimes in the same injection).  There is no discussion of the longevity of these vaccines or their possible long-term effects.  
It doesn’t mean that vaccines might not be a good thing.  But to shut down discussion of any kind as stupid and ignorant is not a benefit ultimately even to those who support vaccines.  

Wet Bar Wednesday – Mexican Coffee

February 26, 2014

While a nice cold cocktail is a great thing, sometimes it’s nice to have something warmer.  I understand that apparently, in many parts of our country and the world, it is very cold right now.  Fascinating.  I can’t say that I understand this legend, but it is fascinating.  Here it’s a balmy 70 and the air is laden with sea salt.  Isn’t it like this everywhere?!!?

Well, be that as it may, even here it can dip into the 50’s at night, and having a warm mixed drink can be a real treat.  Mexican coffee really hits the spot!
The challenge here is that the precise ration of ingredients is going to depend a great deal on personal taste.  A coffee-lover will want more and stronger coffee, while I put in just enough coffee – weakened – to legitimately honor the name of the drink.  Others will find that just a touch of the alcoholic elements, or the spicy elements is all they need, while I prefer for these to predominate.  Experiment!  
  • hot coffee
  • 1 part rum (white or spiced, whichever you prefer)
  • 1 part kahlua
  • dash of cream or half-n-half
  • dash cinnamon
  • dash of cayenne pepper
Put everything in a good-sized coffee mug and stir with a spoon.  Adjust quantities according to your personal taste.  Repeat.  

Perspectives

February 25, 2014

This video was shared by someone on Facebook recently, and I’ve been mulling it over in my head quite a bit for the past few days.  You might want to take a few minutes to watch/listen to it.  The speaker/professor is very well-spoken, but some of her assertions I take issue with.

First, she equates tax-deductible mortgage interest with welfare spending.  She says that she receives state assistance on the mortgage for her home, which to her is no different than welfare spending or subsidies.  It’s sort of confusing,  because her exact verbage is that she considers her home-ownership to be public housing because what she receives in mortgage interest tax-deductions exceeds other “welfare” programs.  I’m not sure what she means.  Is it that the size of her tax-deductible mortgage interest (which in the Berkeley area, is undoubtedly quite a chunk of change!) is larger than any other single source of welfare?  Or is it simply that her mortgage interest tax deduction is the same as welfare aid?  
I appreciate the mortgage interest tax-deduction immensely, and so I can’t claim to be objective about this.  However, my understanding is that this tax-deduction is an incentive – an incentive to home ownership.  The fact that my wife and I are massively indebted to own a piece of land in an equally pricey part of the country to Berkeley is a benefit to our state and Federal government.  It represents a personal investment into both of these entities.  We pay a variety of additional fees and taxes, often in the form of bond initiatives, because of owning our home.  These monies benefit our community directly, helping to fund public schools in our area (even though we home school and do not personally reap any advantage of our public school system).  
So yes, I am receiving a benefit from my country.  I pay the mortgage interest to my lender, and the IRS reduces my Federal taxes by the amount of this interest.  It is a handout of sorts, but a handout based on the fact that my home-ownership is worth more to the State than the amount of interest they credit to me.  
Is public housing the same way?  Is there a benefit, an exchange of value in public housing funding?  What does the State receive in terms of investment from the people who live in public housing?  And let me be clear – I don’t necessarily think that all public housing is bad.  Nor do I believe that all people who utilize public housing are bad in some way.  But I disagree with the video’s equation of these two things as equal, as fundamentally similar.  Again, I’m biased, and so I’m very open to being shown why they aren’t different.  But I don’t see it at this point.  
There’s a clip in the middle of the video purporting to show how Walmart is the biggest “welfare mother” in history, how it systematically forces employees to avail themselves of welfare programs from the Federal government, essentially allowing Walmart to profit as a business at the expense of American taxpayers and the welfare system.  This is ludicrous.
I worked minimum wage jobs in high school and college.  I worked those jobs because they fit my schedule and matched the skill sets and/or expertise that I had.  I didn’t consider any of these jobs to be my long-term vocation.  In fact, much about these jobs spurred me on to find better jobs, to increase my skills and expertise so that I could earn more money.  Yes, there were people who had made careers in these same places that I was working for minimum wage.  But they were the exception.  And they had improved their skills and expertise so that they were earning more money as managers.  I presume that it was a living wage – or as close to a living wage as they needed.  I wasn’t aware that any of them was on welfare.
Would I have considered it reasonable or fair to be told by the government that they would make up the difference in my salary from my part-time, minimum wage job, to some arbitrary level deemed a “living wage”?  Hardly.  Would I have taken it?  You betcha!  Who wouldn’t take free money!  And at the same time, if I was assured that the government would continue to supplement my meager income to a living wage level, would my interest and desire to spend time and money on improving my skills and expertise have been dampened?  I’m pretty sure so.  Free stuff is hard to say no to, and free stuff very quickly begins to change how you see your role in this world.
Should a company be willing to invest in employees who wish to make a long-term commitment to the organization?  Who have developed their skills and expertise to a point where they are more valuable to the organization?  Sure.  But I’m pretty sure that Walmart looks at the vast majority of their employees as Burger King looked at me as a teenager short-term, unskilled labor.  People who need a job for a period of time before doing something else.  Walmart provides a benefit to these people by giving them a chance to develop (or discover) skills and expertise that they will either take elsewhere, or, in a small number of cases, continue to utilize within the organization to improve themselves and their pay level.  
The fact that Walmart hires a lot of part-time people does not mean that Walmart is directly contributing to welfare utilization.  And there is a big argument to be made – often by the folks who want those part-time jobs and lobby for Walmart to come to their community – that Walmart is doing a great service by providing a lot of jobs for unskilled, low-expertise individuals in a community.  
Ultimately it is the individual that determines whether they remain unskilled and without significant expertise – not Walmart.
Finally, the video concludes by lobbying for a universal minimum income. Not a minimum wage, where you are guaranteed so many dollars an hour to do a job, whether you’re really worth that amount of money in skill or expertise.  Rather, a guaranteed minimum income.  Whether you work or not.  Money to allow you to live life at an arbitrarily defined level of “goodness”, regardless of where you work, what you do, or whether or not you work or do anything.
The economics professor lauds the efforts of people who are demanding (and in some cases receiving) this sort of care from their government.  I wonder how long such a system is sustainable.  Where does all this money come from?  What expectations are there to receive it?  I presume that there aren’t expectations – just as there don’t seem to be a lot of expectations regarding the efforts and activities of at least some people who receive welfare assistance currently.  
In which case, it will fall as a harder burden on the backs of those who are working, who do have skills and expertise.  A harder burden in terms of greater levels of taxation (since we can’t just print more money, right?) to support people who not only do not have skills or expertise, but they quickly recognize that life is just as good without skills and expertise as with these things.  That only a sucker would pay money out of pocket for an education, or chain themselves to a 40-hour a week job, if you could receive the same amount of money just by sitting at home.  
I wish we lived in a perfect world.  I wish that corruption and tyranny did not deprive millions or even billions of people from the ability to work to better themselves and their circumsta
nces.  But the fact that tyranny and corruption do these things in some places does not necessarily mean that  the solutions they create to mollify their people are solutions appropriate for a nation that once upon a time boasted that individuals determined their worth and capabilities, not a government.  
What’s frustrating in this video is that there are lots of shorthand connections being made, many of which seem to either be outright fallacious, or only explainable in a more complicated manner.  But many people will watch this video and determine that a business is bad because it creates jobs but doesn’t pay people more than their skills or expertise warrant.  People will watch this video and decide that we can live in a perfect world where everyone has the same amount of money which will mean the same amount of happiness even if skills and expertise are nowhere near the same.  
And they will turn to the government to make this dream a reality.  They will be willing to give up many of their privileges and freedoms and rights that make our country unique and still a constant draw to the underprivileged around the world.  They will give these things up for the promise that the State will give them stuff for free.  That the State will make them fulfilled and happy and at least moderately wealthy.  And with the assumption that the State will never abuse this relationship, never renege on it.  Never go bankrupt, leaving generations of citizens unable to earn a living because they never bothered to go to skill or go to work.  
It’s a recipe for disaster not just on a societal level but on a personal one as well.  But it sure sounds good on paper.  And I sure would have been happy with a lot more free money when I was in college.  And I’m sure I would have figured out that I could maximize that free money by *not* paying tuition and buying overpriced textbooks every semester.  
Good thing people like me don’t exist in these beautiful economic models.  Things might go seriously wrong, seriously fast!

Reading Ramblings – March 2, 2014

February 24, 2014

Date:  The Transfiguration of Our Lord, March 2, 2014

Texts: Exodus 24:8-18; Psalm 2:6-12; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9

Context: Transfiguration Sunday culminates our Epiphany journey.  As we have considered the divinity of our Lord, the fullest expression of this divinity—prior to his resurrection– is Jesus’ self-revelation to his inner circle.  For a few moments or hours Peter, James and John are privileged with a glimpse of some of Jesus’ true glory and nature, combined with another explicit directive from his heavenly Father regarding his identity and their purpose in him. 

Exodus 24:8-18 — Jesus’ mountaintop revelation to his inner circle is not the first time that humanity and divinity have met on a high place.  Exodus 24 is the culmination of the Exodus narrative, the meeting of God and man on Mt. Sinai to initiate a unique communal relationship.  The meeting at Sinai changed the people present for it.  They became God’s people, and this directed their relationships not just with the divine, but with one another.  A new community was created, a community bound not just by blood and ethnicity, but by shared worship of the one true God.  Likewise, as Jesus reveals himself to his inner circle, fellowship and relationship is at the heart of this experience—between Jesus and his disciples, between Jesus and these heroes of the Old Testament, and between God the Son and God the Father.  Peter, James and John, no less than Moses and the leaders of Israel, cannot be the same after this encounter. 

Psalm 2:6-12— This is one of the royal psalms, which we assume were invoked during the coronation of a new king of Israel (united) or Judea (after the split between north and south).  The first six verses mock the conventional wisdom of other kings, kings who do not know God and therefore think that they are indeed in charge of their lives and kingdoms and subjects.  They plot against God but in vain!  Verses 6-12 contrast these other kings with the Lord’s chosen ruler, the one who is faithful to God the Father’s will, acting as a true son.  Such a divinely appointed and obedient ruler is truly one to fear!  No enemy can be safe from a ruler divinely installed and empowered, and fully obedient to God the Father!  As we see Jesus in his glory, we like his disciples are called to mind that the power of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is truly awe and fear-inspiring.  Obedience is not simply a choice we make, it is the only choice that we can make!

2 Peter 1:16-21 — Peter here recalls his experience on the mountaintop with Jesus directly.  Even after the passage of time, it is clear that this moment remains pivotal for Peter.  He is not making this stuff up!  He has faithfully delivered his experiences to those around him.  Further, what Peter saw and heard he links directly with the Old Testament and prophecies regarding the Messiah.  As such, he seeks to reaffirm the uniqueness of Scripture not simply as a book by and from men, but as divinely inspired.  God has orchestrated his plan of salvation from the beginning of time, so that the prophets of old were truly inspired with the truth, pointing towards events and identities not of their own creation but of the Holy Spirit’s revelation.  This we are to hold on to.

Matthew 17:1-9 — One of the fascinating aspects of Christianity is that major sites associated with specific events are not known.  In other words, unlike other religions, where location plays a major or primary role, God’s people have always distinguished between the what that took place and the where.  The what is the important thing, not so much the where.  The where could be anywhere, the what is unique and transcendent. 

As such, two of the critical moments of Biblical history—moments where humanity stands in the presence of the divine for divine self-revelation—occurred in places we can’t pinpoint with 100% accuracy.  The people of God never idolized the locations of Mt. Sinai and the Mt. of Transfiguration.  There are educated guesses and attempts at faithful tradition, but these are just that—attempts and guesses.  We can’t be certain they are correct, even if they are well-intentioned. 

It’s the what that matters.  And the what is that both on Mt. Sinai and the Mt. of Transfiguration, the relationship between God and a group of people altered.  Humanity glimpsed some of the divine, and that glimpse altered those witnesses forever.  They became different people, quite literally, as they entered into a unique and special relationship with the divine.  They were knit into a special and unique community with one another as well.  And in both cases, the divine invited the human to participate in the divine work of restoring creation to perfection as messengers of good news, light in the darkness, salt in the blandness of a broken world. 

Each event was unique.  It wasn’t that God invited every possible person to come up and meet him in this unique way.  Jesus wasn’t even sharing the self-revelation with all twelve of his disciples.  But the few that were present served as emissaries and witnesses for the rest of their lives.  What was important was that the message was taken from the place of the experience.  Those who participated in it and experienced it did not—could not—simply remain in that place, basking in the holy auras or some other such description.  They had received a glimpse of the divine so that they could share it with others, so that others could be transformed as well. 

We don’t sit around waiting for divine encounters such as what happened on Mt. Sinai or the Mt. of Transfiguration.  These events are not true because we ourselves personally experienced them, but because we have received and believed the testimony of generations of believers dating back to the ones who actually were there.  We do not believe for no reason, but for reasons that have endured for thousands of years, because the eye-witness accounts that were given after the events were deemed faithful and truthful and accurate.  Faith may be the essence of things unseen (Hebrews 11:1), but nowhere does God call us to faithfulness in him without reason. 

As St. Peter asserts, God has revealed himself to us not just in creation, not just in special encounters on mountaintops, but in the faithful Word—both the Word we hold in our hands, and more importantly the Word made flesh, to whom the Bible points.  We receive this Word knowing that it is consistent with itself as well as our experience of creation.  We receive it joyfully, for it reveals not only the nature of God, but our hope and salvation as well.

 

State of Our Union

February 22, 2014
A couple of weeks ago we had our monthly pastor’s gathering for our two circuits, comprising a region of roughly 100 miles or more, running from 30 miles north of me to probably 70 miles south of me.  A couple of dozen churches or so from our particularly denomination comprise these two circuits, and every month, more or less half of us gather together for pastoral fellowship, strengthening and encouragement.  
Each of us comes from congregations with various concerns.  Most of our congregations are on the smaller size (less than 100 in worship on Sundays).  Even the ones that are a little (or a lot) larger struggle with what to do with expenses, rising fixed costs, increasingly older (and fewer) people on Sunday mornings.  These pastors are good guys.  Hardly uniform in style or approach or much of anything else, running the age spectrum from late 20’s to 80ish, both retired and active.  
We come together, and at least once a year we are visited by a leader of our regional hierarchy to update us on how things are going.  The news is rarely good.  At this past meeting, our District representative informed us that within the next 30 years or so, half of the 330 or so congregations that comprise our denominational region will no longer exist.  
That’s 150 congregations or so that are expected to close their doors for good.  
Of the ones that remain, many will continue to struggle under the continued cultural trends of fewer young people attending regular worship (let alone supporting a ministry).  Congregations will continue to get smaller and older.  
That’s a pretty shocking statistic.  We gather in various places around our Circuit to receive the Word and Sacraments from one another, to encourage one another and simply enjoy being in the presence of other men who know what we deal with.  Each one of us hears these statistics though and it is a blow to the heart.  None of us argue.  We can’t.  It isn’t as though we don’t see the signs of it in our own congregations, even the larger ones.  But a large millstone is placed around our respective necks as we return to our own congregations.  Premonitions of the future.  Not precisely prophetic utterances of a Biblical quality or scale, but inevitable extrapolations of trends and cultural currents that have been altering for decades now.  
What to do?  What to do?
Congregations look to their pastors for guidance.  Pastors look to their congregations for inspiration and enthusiasm.  Meanwhile the numbers continue to crunch.  It’s easy to spend the days and weeks between Circuit meetings ensconced in our respective offices.  Planning the coming Sunday’s liturgy and worship.  Preparing for Bible studies and writing sermons.  Agonizing over what to do differently, so that our congregations are not part of the 150 that are expected to disappear.  
This leads often to burnout.  Clergy burnout.  Struggling with immense expectations both external and internal.  Worrying.  So little good news.  So rare those moments of obvious evidence of the Holy Spirit’s continued work in our midst – baptisms, confirmations, conversions.  
A colleague of mine in our Circuit blogged about this issue a couple of times in recent weeks.  The first was in response to our Circuit meeting and the devastating statistics.  More recently, in regard to the issue of clergy burnout.  
His response both times is spot on – what is the role of a pastor?  To preach the Word and to Administer the Sacraments.  To unleash the Word of God to kill and make alive again.  This is our traditional denominational understanding, which is further based in another 1500 years of Christian tradition and practice.  
This is what we say, but it is hardly what pastors are hearing – both from above in the hierarchy and below in their congregations.
Pastors are expected more than ever to be the do-all, end-all of the ministry.  They are to come up with the plans of action for outreach that will reverse or at least hold steady the downward trends in membership and worship and tithing.  They are to be the chief cheerleaders for the congregation’s activities, the primary face associated with their congregation’s community branding and image.  They are chief administrators and guardians of the congregation’s resources.  They are to be vigilant at the bedsides of their ill and dying parishioners, yet always on call in their offices for whomever might wish to speak with them.  They are expected in many ways to have the full and complete set of spiritual gifts, all firing properly and at full power at all times.  All on their own.
It’s a tall order.  An order that many pastors reinforce with their own insecurities and needs.  An order reinforced by many congregations that would prefer to let the pastor make all the decisions, or have been trained by generations of pastors that this is the proper way to do things.  An order reinforced by seminaries and watching other pastors perform their duties.  An order reinforced by the Church’s blind assuming of the corporate model and mindset as appropriate to the work of a fundamentally different organization, so that the Pastor is the CEO, the CFO, the CIO, and any number of additional anagrams.  
Preaching and administering the Sacraments is what we are trained to say is the role of the Pastor, but I doubt many congregations – or pastors – really believe this or really want this.  There are far more hats to be filled.  
And from many perspectives, the very livelihood of the congregation is at stake.  Or so we tell ourselves secretly.  Get the right pastor and your congregation will grow and thrive and be relevant to the community once again.  Get the wrong pastor and you might as well buy the hammer and nails for the coffin.  Again, most people (both congregants and pastors) would disagree with this assumption intellectually and publicly, but many are wrapped up in it out of fear or desperation internally.
Meanwhile, the clock keeps ticking.  More and more pews are empty.  Bank accounts grow leaner.  Fear sets in.  Everything feels worse.  Expectations and anxiety and burnout mount.
Delivering the Word that kills and makes alive.  Providing the Sacraments that welcome people into the Body of Christ and allow them a taste of grace and forgiveness – that’s a pretty big task.  Yet it is precisely these tasks that get squeezed in order to make time for the other roles and tasks, whether self-imposed or self-assumed or expected and directed from congregational leadership and the rank and file.  
One hundred and fifty congregations winking out of existence in the next 30 years is not going to be due to pastors not trying to juggle enough balls at one time.  It’s just a fact.  It is the state of our culture at this point in time.  It isn’t a failure on the part of these congregations.  It isn’t that they didn’t preach the Gospel or administer the Sacraments correctly.  It isn’t that their people were bad or rude or unwelcoming.  It just means that there aren’t as many congregations needed as there used to be.  That the costs of maintaining property and structures and traditions continues to rise, and there aren’t enough people to fund these thing
s in 300 congregations any more.
It isn’t a matter of if this will happen, in my opinion.  I think that our estimates are probably spot on.  It’s a shame.  But it’s reality.   Burying our heads in the sand won’t change it.  The only thing to be addressed really, is whether we plan proactively knowing that this is going to happen.  Whether we work together between congregations and pastors to plan a way for this to occur in a way that maximizes continued ministry, or simply fritters and putters away into nothingness.  
It isn’t a matter of success or failure.  It isn’t a matter of faithfulness and unfaithfulness.  In many instances, it may be a matter simply of what appears to be randomness, blind luck.  This one and not that one.  
But two things need to keep happening, and it ought to be the single-minded focus of every member and every congregation – the Word needs to keep going out to as many people as possible, both the faithful and those outside the faith, killing and making alive again.  And the gifts of God in baptism and Holy Communion need to continue to be made available to the faithful.  This has been the work of communities of faith since the first disciples.  Where we do it and when we do it is a matter up for discussion.  
But it is a non-negotiable as to whether it happens.  In other parts of the world churches and congregations are closed by soldiers and laws and orders, and there is nothing to take their place publicly.  It would be tragic and terrible if in this country of incredible freedoms, congregations are closed because of a lack of willingness to do what was necessary to ensure the Word of God continues to do it’s work, even if it doesn’t do it in that particular building or congregation any more.
As pastors, this needs to be our focus.  Not on preserving a building or a set of traditions, but on preaching and teaching the faithful and ensuring the Sacraments are available.  It is the work of our members to determine how this gets done, whether from a traditional full-time pastor or a worker-priest.  Whether in a sanctuary or in a private home.  
This is what matters.  This is what has always defined the Church – faithfulness to this single-minded mission.  Maybe more pastors and congregations need to act accordingly.  Need to focus their resources and time and attention on these things and less on trying to be all things to all people.  Maybe we ought to take heart and hope in the fact that the Holy Spirit is quite capable of bringing literally thousands of people to faith in a single moment (Acts 2:41, 47, 4:4, 5:14, 6:7, 9:31, 11:21, 24).

Movie Review: The Lego Movie

February 22, 2014

We went to see The Lego Movie today with the kids & cousins.  By and large, it’s a mostly enjoyable movie, filled with enough humor for adults, while there’s more than enough action to keep the kids amused even if they don’t get all the jokes.  It’s not precisely the most coherent movie in the world, but hey, what do you expect from a movie inspired by a bunch of building blocks?

However, I have more difficulties with a lot of the movie’s subtext.  Without giving too much away, the movie is about the struggle of ordinary (and not so ordinary) Lego citizens to resist the domination of a master villain, Lord Business.  Lord Business demands order and control over all things, and devises a plan to ensure that his will prevails.  Vague enough?
On the one hand, there are obvious political and economic subtexts.  The struggle against overreaching political power, the dangers of marrying business and politics, and the general manipulation of Everyman by a pervasive cultural machine that does much of it’s most effective work through media.  I don’t have problems with these subtexts.  They’re pretty lightly treated.
But there is an overarching theme of the inherent beauty and better-ness of nearly unrestrained personal liberty.  The bastion of this way of thinking is Cloud Cuckoo Land, an area of the Lego universe where unrestrained personal creativity is the overriding expectation.  People are free to do and be whatever they want (epitomized by Uni-kitty, a mix of a kitty and unicorn).  While there is some clever hints that not all is as simple and carefree in Cloud Cuckoo Land as it appears on the surface, this is pretty trivialized.  
The land is visually represented in clouds and rainbows, multi-colored creations of all kinds and types.  Their unrestrained freedom of personal expression and creation is diametrically opposed to the oppressive demand for order insisted upon by Lord Business.  None of which seems too awful in isolation.
Except that in our culture wars today, the fundamental disagreement is over whether there is (or even should be) a fundamental order to things.  An order that doesn’t just reflect but actually constitutes reality to a large extent.  More and more the fringe elements of our culture (which aren’t nearly as fringe as they were a few short years ago) are successfully bullying people into accepting that there is practically no inherent order necessary in things.  People are free to do and be as they see fit.  Gender is arbitrary, not genetically and biologically hard-wired.  Sexuality is a matter of personal preference.  Marriage is a matter of whatever two or more people want to make it. Freedom is to be the rule of thumb, rules and order be damned.  Well, at least any rules and order other than *their* rules and order.
How is this movement often visually represented in our culture?  In clouds and rainbows and the use of bright and varied colors.  
Not exactly subtle.  
The disagreement over whether things are to be determined by an overarching master planner, or whether we are completely at liberty to do whatever we feel like is the struggle going on in our culture, and this movie clearly seems to side with those who demand unrestrained personal freedom of expression.  Once again, order and propriety are portrayed not just as old and stodgy and silly, but actually evil.  Those who disagree that people are free to create their own reality become the enemy for trying to impose their will on others, even though those who insist on full personal autonomy are just as stridently seeking to impose their will on others.  
Your kids aren’t going to pick up on any of this.  But it really struck home, particularly in the second half and the last few minutes of the movie.  Love is allowing people to wreak havoc on an intended order.  And while I’m a big fan of the freedoms we still enjoy, I am also quick to realize that freedom requires a framework within which to operate.  There is an overarching order both naturally in creation as well as in human constructs.  This is a crucial thing to recognize not as evil, but ultimately as good.  
And we need to be aware that the contrary message is being hammered home again over and over and over in our media.  

Wet Bar Wednesday – Technology

February 19, 2014

Mixing drinks is a social thing.  It is inherently better and more fun with other people.  That being said, it’s as much fun (or more fun, in my opinion) to be mixing the drinks than it is to be consuming them.  

That being said, there are always those looking to push the envelope, who prefer the scientific side of mixing drinks over the artistic side.  Those folks might enjoy some of this research and development.  Or, if this is a bit to sanitary looking, you could try a setup like this.  
While these are novel innovations, they aren’t likely to make a big impact in the home bartender scene (nor are they intended to, frankly).  Mixing drinks at home is about socializing.  It’s about being eager to introduce a friend to your latest discovery (or concoction).  It’s about allowing people to peruse your liquor collection, waiting to see what catches their eye, what triggers a memory or a story, or what prompts an adventurous departure from the same-old-same-old.  
Of course, I feel the same way about refrigerators, yet everyone is certain that the kitchens of the (near) future will be filled with smart appliances that can create shopping lists and text me reminders of what to get at the store.  Are we really that lazy?  What is this freeing me up to do – work longer hours?
All the more reason then to have a drink and enjoy!

Reading Updates

February 19, 2014

A couple of books I’ve finished recently, for what it’s worth.

I thought that I had read Pearl Buck’s masterpiece, The Good Earth, but I don’t think I did.  Unless it was during the summer literature blitzkrieg between 8th & 9th grade, but even still, nothing about the book rang a bell.  A simple but compelling account of a simple Chinese farmer in the early 20th century and the rise of his family fortunes, the book doesn’t sound like very interesting fare, but I enjoyed it all the same.  Some things – issues, yearnings, fears, struggles – are timeless, and Buck does a good job of capturing them without sentimentalizing them.  
Prior to that, I finished a collection of essays and other short material from famed Lutheran humorist Garrison Keillor called We Are Still Married.  If you enjoy Keillior’s radio programs or books (most of which are really just collections of related short stories), then you’ll likely enjoy this as well.  There are some astoundingly insightful pieces in there, along with a handful of duds, but nobody’s perfect, right?
Reading anything good?  Send me a link!

More Camels

February 16, 2014

I blogged on some articles a few days regarding archaeologists assumptions about camel domestication in the Promised Land.  It seemed like an inconsequential topic, but CNN has picked up on it with this editorial.  And, to clarify, CNN picked up on the same Associated Press article – NOT my blog.  

Please, get real!
CNN’s editorial seems sympathetic.  However it is written by a scholar who has recently written a book on the “real” (vs. the Biblical) King David.  In other words, he isn’t someone who expects what  the Bible says to be true in any meaningful way – it’s more symbolic than factual.  Joel Baden assumes that while the Biblical authors are not duplicitous, they are in fact not the authors that Scripture and Hebrew & Christian traditions and history say they are.  
It’s only natural, Baden writes, that the writers of the Old Testament would imagine backwards what they knew in their day – camels were great travel beasts.  Baden assumes that the Bible wasn’t written by who it says it is, or when it claims to have been written, and that the stories are fictitious.  Symbolic.  It isn’t lying, because nobody expects it to be true.  
Again, a popular modern, liberal theological attitude, but one not based on any incontrovertible fact, but only on their own set of presuppositions.  But if you repeat something vigorously enough, people eventually begin to assume it’s true.  Which is ironic, since that’s ultimately what Baden and others accuse early Hebrews and Christians of doing.  
My critiques of these assumed conclusions remains.  Nothing has been proven by this latest archaeological missive or the scholars who want to jump on it to prove their personal bias.  The fact that we have’t found archaeological evidence of domestication doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, or that the Old Testament is flawed, lying, or written hundreds of years after it claims to have been.  It just means we haven’t found archaeological evidence yet.  Scholars know that camels were in the area farther back than the Patriarchal period.  But apparently their assumption is that nobody thought to domesticate for thousands of years, simply because we don’t have proof of it.  It’s a curious interpretation of the data to come to, but it’s hardly surprising these days.