Archive for January, 2015


January 31, 2015

The Jehovah’s Witnesses didn’t come back this morning.  I’m actually disappointed, as I thought our discussion was good and they were really thinking about what I was saying.  Maybe that’s why they didn’t come back….

Speaking When I’m Not Talking

January 30, 2015

The Gospel lesson for this coming Sunday (Year B of the LCMS version of the Revised Common Lectionary) is out of the first chapter of Mark, and is Mark’s first description of Jesus teaching and working wonders.  After (or perhaps as He’s concluding) preaching in the synagogue in Capernaum, where the crowd is impressed with the authority of his teaching, Jesus is confronted by someone with an unclean spirit, demanding to know what Jesus is doing and identifying him as God’s appointed servant.  Jesus commands the spirit’s silence and then casts the demon out of the man, freeing the man from this unclean influence.

All of which goes in our modernist and post-modernist ears and likely out the other.  That’s something that is talked about in the Bible, but it doesn’t happen any more, if it even happened then.  Subconsciously as well as consciously our minds too easily reject or ignore and skip over Biblical assertions of the spiritual powers at play in our world.  There isn’t a category it fits into.

Though perhaps the closest category we have today might be psychological disorder.  I thought this was a fascinating article on people who hear voices and some evolving ways of helping people to deal with this phenomenon yet still lead relatively normal lives.  Whatever normal means these days.

Of course, there’s no mention of spirits or acknowledgment that perhaps there really are entities that can speak to us, whether for good or ill.  That doesn’t fit into our neat insistence on ourselves as the sole beginning and end of the issues we struggle with.  Never mind that cultures around the globe and across history and culture testify to the reality of external powers that sometimes act for our favor and sometimes act to harm us.

Not every instance of mental illness is necessarily spiritual in nature, but once again I find it disheartening that so much of the world’s experience and history is reduced to the insistence that everyone must be wrong and there must be an internal issue causing these phenomenon which ultimately are not real beyond the individual subjective experience of them.  Medication and therapy and talking back may be helpful, but ultimately, whether a purely psychological issue or a spiritual matter, we have the hope and confidence that these issues will ultimately dealt with, that we can experience release from them through the same man who cast out the demon in Mark 1 – as well as many others – 2000 years ago.  My heart goes out to those who suffer from these voices, and I can only pray that they encounter the Good News that their voices can one day – perhaps sooner, perhaps later, be silenced, and they can have peace.

Switching Missionaries

January 29, 2015

My meetings with the Mormons of last year gradually dribbled to a stop prior to the end of last year.  The initial young women I met with were in turn replaced by one set of young men who were in turn replaced again and what I believe was a third change of guard took place (they apparently rotate every six weeks or so).  Between the changes in names and faces and my schedule at the end of the year, meetings fell off.  I trust that at some point I’ll get a call asking to start up again, and I’ll be glad to.

In one of my last meetings with the Latter Day Saints (LDS) missionaries, they loaned me a DVD regarding archaeology related to the Book of Mormon.  I had been pressing them for correlative evidence beyond their own sacred texts that would help substantiate the truth of those texts.  The young missionary was quite excited to be able to provide me with this valuable resource.

I made it through about 15 minutes of it.  I checked the credentials of every academic involved with the DVD.  All of them (maybe with one exception) were graduates of Brigham Young University – many of them with several of their advanced degrees from there.  A tad bit biased.  Nobody outside of an LDS academic background was involved.

I lasted 15 minutes because there was no content to the material.  It was all hypothetical.  We think we know where some of these events took place.  We’re pretty sure that these are the places because they seem to match the very weak descriptions in the text.  There are extensive, panoramic shots of scenery and wildlife, presumably in the regions that the text is talking about.  There are maps of Central America, but in those first 15 minutes, not a single verifiable place name.  Here’s a circle on a map, and here’s a picture of some landscape, presumably in that circle.  We aren’t going  to tell you what this region is currently called though.  Bizarre.  But we’re pretty darn sure these are the spots, which means that the Book of Mormon is true.

Part of what supports my faith in the Bible as the Word of God is the amazing amount of external corroboration of places in the Bible.  It isn’t questionable where things happened more often than not.  At times the Bible provides more detailed geographical information than we can make sense of – place names that we don’t know where they are.  Yet the original hearers of those sections of Scripture apparently did – else why include them?  Archaeology is constantly discovering new things that reinforce that the people who wrote Scripture down were talking about real places and events.  It’s amazing that the Book of Mormon can assert such sweeping things about history right here in our own back yard, as it were, without apparently any specific ability to pinpoint locations.

But all that is irrelevant for now, because now I’m meeting with Jehovah’s Witnesses.

On several occasions these sharply dressed folks have canvassed our particular street in the two years we’ve lived there.  This last time, a couple of weeks ago, I met them (looking decidedly less sharply dressed) on the front porch and chatted with them for a bit.  They left a couple of brochures about the state of our world and government and hopes for a divine intervention and asked if they could come back to talk more next week.  I agreed and promptly forgot all about it until the doorbell rang last Saturday.

One of the same guys was there, dressed sharply again, this time with his wife.  We talked a bit about the brochures I hadn’t read, but was quickly scanning as I flipped through the pages ‘reviewing’ with them.  My main point of distinction was that they talked about God intervening in human history, and this is not the Biblical picture or hope that I hold.  I talked about how I saw Scripture pointing not to just an intervention, but to God’s full reclamation of all of creation.  He wasn’t just going to improve things a bit and send us on our way, He was going to resume his rightful place as Lord and Creator in proper relationship with his creation.

What surprised me was that they asked me what my job was and I told them a pastor and they still wanted to talk.  We had a very interesting discussion focused on the first three chapters of Genesis, and they seemed genuinely intrigued by the idea that God knew how things were going to pan out, a la the forbidden fruit and sin and all the suffering that follows.  We haven’t touched on Trinitarian themes or issues, but they will be back this Saturday they said, and it will be interesting to continue the discussion.

My main points were that God is all powerful and all knowing (among other things), and so to claim that He could create the universe and not know how things were going to play out is contradictory.  But this doesn’t mean that God forced our hand in this – the sin in the garden was volitional, not forced.  My sin, while stemming from an inherently sinful and broken nature, is also unforced.  Predestination is not the issue here.  The point of all of this then becomes God’s glory, a situation where, when we see and understand a bit more (at least) than we do now about things, we’ll have no choice, there will be no better, more logical alternative, than to worship God for his goodness and mercy and greatness.

This really challenged them, I could tell.  I look forward to how the conversation continues this week.

More School Stuff

January 28, 2015

Can you tell that I feel guilty that it’s Wednesday and I haven’t had time this week to come up with a new drink to write about? ‘Tis true.  So I’ll overwhelm you with other stuff instead.

I’m relieved to know that our lawmakers here in the great state of California are implementing new report card criteria.  In addition to traditional subjects, students will now be evaluated in areas such as grit, gratitude, and being sensitive to others.  It’s a relief to know that our students will have these new assessments to assist them in preparation for life.

How does one determine grit?  Or gratitude?  Or being sensitive to others?  Must students perform one gritty thing each day to receive the highest rating?  Who determines what is gritty?  What happens if the teacher doesn’t see the gratitude a particular child displays?  And most disturbing at all given the massive cultural upheavals of the past few years, how is one to determine if a child is sensitive to others?

All of these sound very subjective.  It could be argued that all grading is somewhat subjective, but at least in traditional academic subjects there should be a string of grades on reports, quizzes, tests, etc. to help justify the grade.  But how will grittiness be determined?  More importantly, what are the ramifications if a student is not sufficiently sensitive to others?  Are grittiness and sensitivity somewhat opposite attributes, or are they complementary?  Is being sensitive an act of grittiness?  Does one’s self-identified gender affiliation or sexual orientation (because these are real things in second grade now, mind you) automatically establish one as sufficiently gritty or sensitive?

Yes, I’m skeptical to say the least, but I hear new means for forcing students to acquiesce their personal beliefs in order to get good marks.  We can’t have Johnny/Suzy not getting into Harvard because their sensitivity scores were too low!  Do whatever your teacher tells you to do, dammit, just keep those grades up!


January 28, 2015

This morning was my first real shift of volunteering for my city’s international film festival.  It was a fascinating experience on many dimensions.

I decided to do this as a means of plugging into my community in a new way, personally.  I live here.  I’ve lived in this city longer than any other city I’ve lived in since we moved away ten years ago from the place that I grew to adulthood.  I envision being in this city for a long time.  I want to get to know it better, meaning I want to get to know the people better here, and to continue to meet new people in general means placing yourself in new situations where different people gather.

I can’t recommend strongly enough – particularly if you are successful, respected, or otherwise comfortable with who you and and what you’re doing – intentionally putting yourself at the bottom of the ladder in another context.  I’m nobody at this thing.  I am one of 700 or so volunteers that are essential to making this event successful, but pretty much a faceless, unimportant grunt.  It’s a humbling thing, and that’s good.  Regardless of who you are in any number of your vocational settings, in some other setting, you’re nobody, and it’s good to remember this.  I suspect it retards the growth of an unnaturally large sense of self-importance.

It’s fascinating to work with new people.  I was paired with a wonderful woman who has volunteered for many years and quickly and effectively trained me in what I would be doing.  By the end of my shift I felt competent, and that’s a wonderful blessing when you’re doing something for the first time.  There was a lot of time standing around, so I tried to keep myself busy and useful in various ways.  Others were quite content to stand and wait for somebody to come up and ask them to do something.  You get a quick feel for those who really enjoy what they’re doing as opposed to those who are there for the perks.

People like perks.  As our shift was beginning the woman overseeing things started asking for volunteers for certain duties.  Many of the volunteers have done this before, and several of them quickly asserted themselves to get specific roles, gleefully exclaiming that this year they got to do these roles.  They had apparently paid their dues in years past.  No biggie.  I loved what I ended up doing – standing around outside looking for confused attendees and helping to solve their problems and direct them to the right place.

Which is another thing I learned – when volunteering, try and learn the ropes during a less-intensive time frame.  I wish I could take credit for planning that out, but it was just stupid luck that in hindsight is genius.  Today was the first full day of the festival, and the first full day of screenings.  I signed up for the 7am to 10am shift.  Comparatively few people want to get up and go see a movie at that hour, so I didn’t have to learn the ropes while wrangling hordes of movie-goers.  I had the time and pace to learn what I needed to in order to be effective.  I’m grateful for that.

It was interesting to watch the other volunteers planning out their personal schedules.  I didn’t realize when I signed up to volunteer that one of the perks (if you work a minimum of five shifts over the 12-day festival) is that you get to see as many movies at the festival for free as you like, providing that you’re not going to be taking a seat away from a paid attendee.  Considering that the cheapest prices for any of the movies is $14.00, and considering that their are dozens and dozens and dozens of showings and films, volunteering is a great way to get to see movies for free.  That’s not why I’m doing it, but it’s great to know that there is this perk to volunteering.

When I signed up to volunteer, I was asked all sorts of questions about my background, abilities, credentials, anything that might be of interest and help to the festival.  In addition to my day job, I listed my background in technology, my bartender certification, and my experience in transportation (a brief lark as an upscale taxi driver 14 years ago during the dot com bust).  I mentioned background in customer service and all sorts of stuff.

Nobody has any idea about any of those things.  Nobody knows who I am, let alone what I am capable of.  They asked me a lot of questions that appear to have no bearing on anything I’m doing.  I’m OK with that, but if you’re going to ask a bunch of questions, it makes sense to use it somehow.  Or perhaps none of my stuff was particularly interesting or useful.  That’s probably much more likely.   But asking those questions leads volunteers to believe they might have something valuable to offer, and when it’s clear that nobody is really looking at the answers to those questions, then maybe it isn’t necessary to ask them.

I look forward to my next shift, tomorrow night during the peak hours.  Should be a fascinating experience!  I’ve met at least half a dozen other volunteers, ranging in age from probably 19 to 70.  I’ve been able to learn a bit about them, and have even shared a little about what I do with some of them.  I’ve met and chatted with very nice people as they waited in line for their movie.  I’ve met and shook hands with one somewhat famous actor-director.  I’ll do it again next year, unless something goes horribly awry in my remaining shifts!

Forced Treatment II

January 27, 2015

Last week I blogged my concerns about the growing attitude of doctors that they have the right to dictate treatment to patients.  A high school acquaintance of mine posted this article on Facebook today, lamenting the demise of the young girl.  She requested feedback from some of her professional peers, and they more or less empathized with the idea that doctors should have the right to dictate treatment options.

First off, my heart and prayers go out to this girl’s family and community as they mourn her loss.  The article makes it sound as though she might be Christian, and I pray that this was – and is – the case.

Several things struck me here.  First, I thought it was fascinating that the main reason stronger legal measures weren’t employed to force continued chemotherapy treatments is that the girl is part of an indigenous people group.  Because she was part of the First Nations people group, doctors backed off on their demands.  The beliefs of that legal entity that represents a set of cultural beliefs and practices was granted respect in this situation.  I’ve not heard any such respect when dealing with Christians who opt out of treatment in favor of alternative treatments.  While it’s clear that the doctors aren’t happy with the situation, they go along with it – for what I would assume are mostly reasons of political correctness.  It’s acceptable to refer to a Christian who opts out of treatment as a nut job, but it’s not politically correct to make the same assessment of a First Nations person who does the same thing.  Curious.

And I’ll interject here with a standard disclaimer.  I am grateful for the many blessings of science and technology and medicine.  I am grateful for doctors and nurses and their commitment to healing and care for those who suffer.  I don’t personally see Scriptural grounds for refusing a course of treatment in favor of prayer or any other specific course of treatment.  However I firmly believe that such decisions are the right of the patient, and that doctors should not have the right to force a certain type of treatment.

The little girl claimed to have an encounter with Jesus Christ.  An encounter in which he told her that she was healed and not to be afraid.  The article implies that this encounter prompted her request not to continue chemotherapy, though there is nothing specific in what she says of the encounter that would substantiate that.

I wonder about the use of the word heal in this encounter.   I’m not qualified to judge whether or not the little girl did encounter the resurrected Jesus of Christ, perhaps in a similar way to Saul of Tarsus, later to be known as St. Paul.  Based on Saul’s experience, I have to believe that it is possible that Jesus met the girl just as she claimed.  I’m not in a position to judge on the accuracy with which she remembered the encounter or Jesus’ words.

But here is a fundamental point that interests me.  Everything she claims He said to her is true.

“You are already healed” – yes, this is true.  Not necessarily from cancer, but from the greater threat of sin and separation from God.  Through faith in Christ we are healed, brought spiritually from death to life.  No greater healing is possible – or necessary.  While temporal sickness and suffering may enter our lives, whether we receive healing and deliverance from them is a secondary matter to our spiritual state before God.  I pray regularly for healing for others.  I pray sincerely, and trust that this temporary healing is not the determination of God’s existence, his love for that person, his power, or anything else.  We will all die of something.  I don’t know what it will be that gets me, but I know for a fact that (unless Jesus returns first) something will get me.  Something will be the cause of my death.

“Don’t be afraid” – I don’t fear the reality of my death.  I don’t look forward to it, and it is not my duty to intentionally try to bring it about.  But I don’t fear it.  I met with a woman from my former parish last week who would die less than 24 hours after my visit.  I asked her if she was afraid and she shook her head no.  I visited with another member of my former parish this morning in the hospital.  I asked him if he was afraid of the tests and potential risks of treatment that might be suggested.  He also was firm.  “No.  I’m not afraid.  I’m in the Lord’s hands.”

I appreciate the desire of doctors to help people.  I believe that we should be responsible in availing ourselves of the treatments made available to us.  But I believe that we should be allowed to make decisions about these things.  Treatment success of the leukemia the young girl had is in the 75%-80% range, which is impressive.  But it’s not foolproof either.  That’s a big reality for a person to face.  Do doctors have the right to force people to take that gamble as opposed to a different wager?  That’s a dangerous slope we start off on then.

I’m not advocating for attempting to end one’s life.  But I trust that as good as our science and medicine are, they are not exclusive, and that some people experience healing from means outside the realm of mainstream medical wisdom.  While I might caution someone to be very careful about going down that road – because the risks are so serious – something in me is more comfortable with that than with being forced to receive a particular type of treatment.

Marriage & Kids

January 27, 2015

I thought this was an interesting little comment by Pope Francis, in the transcript of an hour-long, free-form interview he granted mid-flight on one of his recent trips.

“It’s true that openness to life is a condition for the sacrament of matrimony. A man cannot give the sacrament to the woman, and the woman cannot give it to him, if they are not in accord on this point of openness to life. If it can be proved that he or she married with the intention of not being Catholic (on this point) then the matrimony is null. (It is) a cause for the annulment of the marriage, no? Openness to life.” – Pope Francis –


Reading Ramblings – February 1, 2015

January 25, 2015

Reading Ramblings

Date: Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 1, 2015

Texts: Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-3; Mark 1:21-28

Context: As we continue the “in-between time” between Epiphany and Lent, we again focus on the Word of God, and particularly the one who will bear it. Moses is the bringer of God’s Word to God’s people quite literally – in Exodus 20 after the Lord revealed the Ten Commandments to the Israelites in his own voice, the people pleaded that God would not speak directly to them again, but rather would speak to Moses and Moses could bring them his Word. Moses however points to one greater than him who also will speak the Word of the Lord to his people. That person is Jesus, who comes with authority as the Word of God made flesh, to speak the Word of God to God’s people.

Deuteronomy 18:15-20 – Deuteronomy ends with the death of Moses, and the book functions in large regard as a recap, a final farewell teaching to the people of God before Moses dies. But Moses also warns the people to be on the watch for another one. There were judges years after Moses who God used to rally his people to repentance. There were kings who were to ensure that the people of God were free to respond to his Word. There were plenty of prophets who came after Moses and spoke the word of God with authority. Yet Moses is specific. He speaks singularly, one individual in particular is the one God’s people must watch for, and listen to.

Psalm 111 – A psalm of praise for the Lord, and an exhortation not just for personal praise but for corporate worship (v.1). Verses 2-4 generically praise all that the Lord has done and continues to do, including the fact that He causes his good works to be remembered, such as the Exodus. Yet his works continue, including basic provision for life (v.5) and their current position as a secure, independent nation (v.6). Whatever the Lord decrees is, by definition, good and right and not subject to change by our whims (vs.7-8). Verse 9 looks back primarily to the Exodus, but also to the many saving acts of God on behalf of his Old Testament people. But we appropriate this verse with Jesus the Messiah in mind. For all these reasons, God is to be respected and even feared, recognizing his perfect wisdom that we cannot begin to fathom.

1 Corinthians 8:1-3 – As we continue our extended reading of Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul moves from marital consideration to another issue that concerned the Corinthians – what food they should avoid as possibly associated with pagan practices and offerings. Paul prefaces his treatment of this subject with a more general precept – when we act only out of what we know, out of our own cleverness, we run the risk of pride and the dangers and harms that come with it. When we seek to act out of love for God, and therefore love for our neighbor, we are more likely to act in a way that is best for us and for others, even if that means limiting or not availing ourselves of the ‘rights’ our cleverness or intellect might be able to win for us. I wish that our conversations as Christians were more guided by this important precept. When we speak only out of a sense of superior knowledge, while we may be theologically correct, we may damage to our brothers and sisters in Christ. A healthy sense of humility, grounded in love for God and love for neighbor, should dominate in all of our conversations, particularly those associated with the things of God and our Christian lives.

Mark 1:21-28 – We see at work the one that Moses prepared God’s people for 1400 years earlier or so. The first public act of ministry that Mark records centers on Jesus’ teaching. His teaching astonishes the people (v.22), because as we are told later (v.27) He teaches with authority. It is traditional for rabbis to ground their teaching in a particular tradition or school, or refer to an earlier, particular rabbi for the source of their teaching. A rabbi is well-versed with centuries of scholastic commentary and debate on various aspects of the Scripture, and so might easily reference this rabbi or that rabbi while teaching.

Jesus apparently doesn’t do this. He speaks the Word of God to God’s people as God the Father gives it to him. He does not need to appeal to human teachers of the Word because He himself is the Word made flesh. This is noteworthy and impressive because of it’s unusual nature.

Perhaps this is what grabs the attention of the demon who possesses a local man. The man had not been there during Jesus’ teaching, but appears during or after it. The demon recognizes Jesus for who He is and speaks in fear – fear of destruction. The demon addresses Jesus publicly with his proper title. This may be an attempt to derail Jesus’ ministry. First century Palestine was a popular breeding ground for discontent with Rome. More than a few people grew weary enough to rise up in rebellion against Rome, and a necessary aspect of this would be rallying the people around them, both to recruit fighters as well as to secure practical help in terms of supplies, intelligence, etc. Some of these rebels were thought to be the Messiah, and some actually embraced that term.

But Jesus is not interested in being acclaimed as the Messiah at the start of his ministry. Messiah is a loaded term for his people. It is a term that implies military victory and political triumph. It is a term that implies that at least some of the issues to be addressed will be temporal and practical – deliverance from oppression, from Gentile rule, from brutal taxation. And true enough, Jesus’ ministry will indeed provide these things in due time. But not immediately. Not for the people of first century Palestine. Perhaps not for you and I today.

So rather than have people misconstrue who He is, Jesus silences the demon and forces him out of the man. The teaching of Jesus is reinforced with miraculous power over a demon. This was enough to get Jesus a much larger audience, as people were undoubtedly curious about his teaching, but also hopeful that his miraculous powers might provide them with relief from the demons or diseases which plagued them.

God the Father continues to respect the needs of his people. He does not speak directly to them in power and majesty as He did in Exodus 19 and 20, but surely the Father is speaking through the Son in a way similar to how He spoke through Moses. In a way that the people can hear without fear and terror, in a way that draws them closer, wanting to hear more, needing the Words that Jesus speaks and the life that He brings through them. Most importantly will be the words He speaks regarding his death and resurrection, as well as his words of promise to return after his ascension. These words sustain us and form our understanding of the world and our lives and the future still today!

Sailing Away

January 24, 2015

I was fascinated by this little story about a woman who has elected to sell her home and live on a cruise ship full time.  It sounds like it would be fun – at least for a while.

I wonder why she’s paying so much.  Part of the attraction of cruises is that they can be very cost effective as vacations, averaging $100/day for lodging, food, and entertainment costs.  By those figures, she should be paying around $40,000 a year to live on the ship.  Yet she’s paying four times that!  I presume she’s staying in a nice cabin, not one of the cut-rate, best deal rooms below deck with no window.  But even still – seems awfully pricey!

It struck me how lonely it must be, eventually, unless you’re an extremely outgoing and social person.  Crews on the ships change.  There is a new batch of passengers constantly.  While it might be fun for a year, it seems like the novelty would quickly wear off, particularly once you were no longer able or interested in going ashore to explore.

Would you do something like this?

Words of Comfort

January 23, 2015

I know more than a few folks in my congregation and beyond who struggle.  They agonize over the fact that their children – who they raised in the church – don’t go to church anymore.  They themselves go, they don’t take their kids, and they don’t baptize their kids.

This is a beautiful little essay that offers encouragement and hope for people who worry about others in their lives who have left the church.  I like how it emphasizes the power and commitment of God, and how it stops short of the error of saying that the act of baptism in and of itself is enough for salvation.  I’d like to be able to make that promise but Scripture doesn’t let me.  But Scripture most certainly does assure me that God is relentless in pursuing his creatures, and I imagine that this is additionally true for those who were at one time members of the body of Christ but now are not actively so.

Never give up hope.  Always remember that regardless of what another person says or does only God knows their heart, and therefore we can always pray in hopes that the Holy Spirit’s work in that person’s life will result in a profession of faith that we can hear and rejoice in.