Archive for January, 2015

Things that Make You Go Hmmmm…

January 22, 2015

Just legalize marijuana.  It’s a harmless drug and there aren’t any repercussions of legalizing it.  In fact, the states that do will be rolling in dough from all the taxes and regulatory fees they collect on it!

It’s a compelling, if incredibly shallow, argument.  But this little article from the New York Times points up some of the challenges of simply legalizing marijuana.  Most people – most people unfamiliar with marijuana, at least, assume that it is just a matter of growing some plants or smoking some funny cigarettes.  But there are other ways that people seek to tap into the potency of the drug, and some of those ways are extremely dangerous – not just to the health of the person(s) engaged in it, but to everyone around them as well.

Does legalizing marijuana give a person a right to utilize the substance in any way they like?  Can they put themselves, their neighbors, and their respective properties in danger in order to use the substance the way they choose?

Are there laws against distilling your own liquor at home?  Home brewing seems to be quite the rage these days – is home distillation also an option?  I don’t hear about people blowing up themselves and their homes with homemade distillation processes, but perhaps it happens.

What struck me in the article is the legal morass that is created simply by legalizing something that was illegal before, can be used in a lot of unpredictable ways, and does indeed have far-reaching repercussions on people and communities.  How much are the legal costs for dealing with people who accidentally blow up themselves and their houses – or someone else’s house that they’re renting – all because marijuana is legal?  Between court costs and incarceration costs (if that is the outcome), how will this affect the bottom line of states like Colorado who legalize marijuana?

Wet Bar Wednesday – Baiju

January 21, 2015

I’ve run across a couple of articles on this alcohol from China known commonly as baiju (pronounced buy-joe, I think).  It interests me both because of it’s potency and it’s derivation from sorghum, a species of grass.  I’ve tried one liquor store in town and they didn’t have it and hadn’t heard of it, but that wasn’t too surprising.  I’m going to try a couple of places that seem to be better educated on world liquors and see if they have some.  It has an alcohol content of 40-60%, which is pretty impressive!

Anybody have experience with baiju before?

Forced Treatment

January 20, 2015

You are diagnosed with a fatal disease.  There is a treatment for the disease but it is not 100% effective.  It will involve injecting toxins into your body intended to kill the diseased cells, but that will also inflict unpredictable damage on healthy cells and organs.  The treatment could require extended hospitalization, rendering you almost incapable of functioning.

Another alternative is that the disease will kill you, and it might kill you in as little as two years.

There are another alternatives as well, ones that doesn’t require your body to be poisoned, but that does not have well-documented or well-correlated evidence of success.  These rely on unconventional approaches to strengthening the body to fight the disease.  They are not guaranteed to work either, but likely won’t result in you spending extended time in hospitals as a result of the attempted cures.

Which would you choose?  A lot of variables come into play.  How old are you?  What sort of physical condition are you in?  But at the end of the day, you would assume that this would be a choice for you to make, correct?  You would decide on the first alternative, or one of the other lesser-known, lesser-proven options?  It might even be your choice not to take any of the alternatives, to let the disease run it’s course and see what happens.  Right?

What if it isn’t your choice?  It’s not your choice or your parents or your spouse or anyone else who knows you and understands why you might make a particular choice.  Rather, the choice is made by a medical board simply based on their assertions that the first option is your best chance for survival, and they have the right and duty to force you to take that option.

That’s what is happening right now to a young woman.  I find it reasonable to assume it is probably happening to other people as well, but this young woman is taking the issue public.  In her case, she is being told that she must submit to the first option for treatment because she is only 17 and isn’t old enough to make serious decisions for herself.

At the risk of further alienating my younger self, I can see an argument that a minor isn’t capable of or shouldn’t be allowed exclusively to make such decisions.  I think 17 is a lot different than seven in this respect, but let’s grant that argument for a moment.  A 17-year old girl is not capable of making serious decisions for herself in regards to her healthcare.

What about her mother?  Is her mother capable?  If her mother – the woman who brought her into the world and knows her probably as well as if not better than any other human being – if her mother agrees with her that they want to try other options, that they’ve weighed the risks and know the outcomes are sketchy, that they aren’t aiming for death or suicide but rather for life through healthier treatment options, if her mother agrees with her, should the mother have the right to make that decision?  When her daughter is in agreement with her?  Should the girl’s legal guardian be allowed that power?

The state is arguing that no, she shouldn’t have that right to refuse the recommended course of treatment.  She is being told her daughter must be forced into the treatment she doesn’t want.

Yet – and here’s the irony – yet if the girl were four years younger, if the girl were 13 rather than 17, this very same girl would have the legal right in her state to request contraceptives or even to get an abortion without her parents even knowing about it.

Does that make sense to you?  Does it frighten you that someone could insist that you engage in a course of treatment that can’t guarantee survival, involves putting dangerous toxins into your body, may render you unable to live life normally for the remainder of your treatment?  Should your government have the right to force you into that course of treatment?

This may sound similar to the debate over assisted suicide/euthanasia – the idea that the state can or should permit or require the termination of life given a variable set of circumstances, generally described as terminal illness but not necessarily limited to that.  Is the state requiring that someone have a right to kill themselves fundamentally different from the state requiring someone to undergo one course of treatment rather than another?  No.  One aims at the elimination of life, the other is a matter of debate over how best to save it.  The state decreeing that there are arbitrary circumstances where someone can end their life is very different from a disagreement over a medical procedure aimed at prolonging life.

My government can and does have very good reasons for saying that I don’t get to end my life whenever I decide to.  But I don’t think my government has a very compelling case for saying that I must submit to a certain course of treatment for a particular condition or disease.  I can (and should) be presented with my options, but the decision should be mine which option to pursue.

Heaven Is for Real – Still

January 19, 2015

I ran across this interesting National Public Radio blurb about another boy who wrote a book (not the boy who wrote the book in the title – a different one) about his alleged experience of heaven.  Only in this case, the boy is retracting his statements and the publisher is pulling the book and related merchandise.  But the brief article only raises a billion tantalizing questions.

The boy claims that he made up all the stuff that went into the book, which is co-authored with his father.  He claims that five years ago, when he made the claims, he had never read the Bible but made the stuff up to get attention.  However his statements point to a change in him – that he has read the Bible now (or at least some of it) and considers it to be true.  I’d love to hear more about this story.  Was the boy not a Christian before?  A typical Christian raised apart from the actual Word of God?  Fascinating!

As an aside, NPR’s math is confusing.  Just based on the numbers in the story, Alex (the boy) should be 11.  But apparently there was a delay between his accident and alleged experiences, and when his book was published and became a best-seller.

His parents are divorced now, the story says, implying that they weren’t when the accident and alleged events occurred.  Were they married when the book was being put together and published?  How does the divorce factor into things?  Curious.

His mother asserts that Alex knows that his claims contradict Scripture.  How?  Do I have to go and read another book just to figure out what he said that contradicted Scripture?  Ugh.  I think I’ll just skip it.

At the end of the day, this story shows the danger of placing too much stock in personal accounts of spiritual/divine experiences.  It isn’t that these experiences may not be real, and that they may not be very inspiring indeed.  But as Alex’s mother and Alex himself make clear, the real source of truth and hope is the Bible itself.  I don’t know what’s going on in the head of a six-year old kid.  I’m not in a position to authoritatively declare his story to be a crock or to be true.  All I can do is compare it to Scripture, which I believe is the inspired Word of God, and see if it matches.  If it doesn’t, there are problems –  either in what is being claimed as an experience, or in how what was experienced is being communicated.

These memoirs are helpful only insofar as they aren’t fabricated (obviously), and insofar as they place themselves in an appropriate context historically and literarily.  In other words, I would never tell someone to believe in God and heaven on the basis of what a child experienced – or any other single person experienced.  There are too many variables.  But I could point to the evidence for God based on the experiences of LOTS of people across history and geography as an argument – albeit still a weak one by modern standards.

Telling my story of faith is a wonderful thing.  Is it as wonderful when it becomes the means for generating income – whether for myself or a company?  That’s an interesting question.  Is it different to be a paid minister of the Gospel than to be a person publishing a memoir of their spiritual experiences?  I think there is, but obviously I’m not fully objective (being a paid minister of the Gospel!).  I didn’t set out on the road to the ministry in order to make money.  There were other points in my life where I made more than I make now.  I could have continued to work in various other fields to make a living while sharing my faith with others.

What would motivate a child – and the story clearly hints that the child was coerced or encouraged in this, presumably by the father – to make up a story like this?  Was there pressure because of the medical costs and the desire to find a way to pay for them?  Did the child have an interesting experience that he was forced to expand and elaborate on in untruthful ways?  So many questions here.

If you read these books, read the Bible first, and alongside them.  Read them not in place of Scripture.  Not as evidence in and of themselves, but as pointing to the evidence of Scripture.  We should expect that there will be fraudulent books alongside the sincere ones.  Knowing God’s Word first and best will help us to evaluate these other books and make sense of what they are trying to tell us, and whether we should listen.

Reading Rambling – January 25, 2015

January 18, 2015

Reading Ramblings

Date: Third Sunday after the Epiphany – January 25, 2015

Texts: Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31(32-35); Mark 1:14-20

Context: The Word of God is powerful. It can do things that we otherwise would deem impossible. It can convert entire cities from sinfulness to Godly repentance. It can create disciples out of ordinary people. It is this same Word that has called you and I, created us in the likeness of Jesus the Christ through the power of baptism and faith created by God the Holy Spirit himself. We should anticipate and rely on the Word of God as the power for our lives, and the power to work in others’ lives as well.

Jonah 3:1-5, 10 – Jonah eventually obeys the voice of God telling him to preach repentance to Nineveh. Nineveh is the capital of the Assyrian empire, an enemy state of the people of God. Jonah is reluctant to bring the Gospel to these people, whom he would much rather see destroyed. Jonah trusts that the power of Gods’ Word is enough to change even the hardest hearts – and his trust is not misplaced. The city repents, from the king to the lowest person, and God responds in faithfulness to his promise, sparing the city from destruction.

Psalm 62 – The Word of God that can convert a city from evil to repentance is the same power that you and I lean on each day through the trials and tribulations of the world. How God will act in our lives we cannot predict, but we know that He is at work. The machinations of the world and evil people in it (vs. 3-4) that seek to grind us under are of no use against this Word. The estimations of the world, the means we are taught to gauge ourselves and one another are equally transitory and arbitrary (vs. 9-10). The only sure source of wisdom and life is the Word of God.

1 Corinthians 7:29-31(32-35) – Since we are in Ordinary Time officially, this reading does not have anything specific to do with the Gospel and Old Testament lessons. Rather, for these four weeks between Epiphany and Lent, the Epistle lesson is drawn from 1 Corinthians as part of the historic church practice of lectio continua – reading through large sections of Scripture more or less systematically.

The content of today’s reading is fascinating. It comes from a passage where Paul is addressing questions the Corinthians apparently had about marriage. Should Christians marry or remain single? Should those who come to faith divorce their spouse if their spouse will not convert? Paul seeks to be practical here, dealing with real questions of how we live out our lives of faithfulness.

Paul begins (or continues) in verse 29 by reminding his hearers that our time here is short. Paul may have expected Jesus to return in very short order, but his admonitions about how to prioritize our lives remain helpful even 2000 years later. What is to be our focus? Our focus is to be on our Lord and Savior, first and foremost. Towards that end, anything that would divert us away from that focus must be understood to be second – even a distant second. This may sound harsh, but seems to be in keeping with Jesus’ teaching (Luke 14:26, for example). Jesus makes it clear that we have to keep our priorities straight. Does Jesus advocate abandoning our family ties? Is that what Paul wants? Of course not! Paul has just written in the previous verses (vs.10-16) about fidelity in the marital vows.

But at the same time we need to remember that these relationships are always at risk of drawing us away from Christ. We must keep our priorities straight, because we do not know the day or hour of our Lord’s return. In the extended reading, Paul elaborates that these relationships naturally will divide our attentions, and not without validity. Paul praises the focus that is possible without family ties, though of course it is just as possible to be just as distracted as a single person than as a married person.

Mark 1:14-20 – Jesus begins his formal ministry after successfully enduring faithfully the temptations of Satan in the wilderness following his baptism. Jesus is now empowered by the Holy Spirit to begin preaching, and He does so. John the Baptist called the people to repentance, Jesus calls them specifically to repentance in the light of the nearness of the kingdom of God, a kingdom that is present in the person and work of the Son of God.

Jesus speaks, and these men respond. The Word of God is at work in their lives, transforming their vocations from workmen to disciples. This is likely not the first time that Jesus has met these people. The opening chapter of John’s Gospel (vs.35-51) has Jesus speaking with a variety of people in the Jordan River valley and in the area around Jerusalem. Having met his future disciples first there, He later calls them formally to become disciples later, after they have all returned to Galilee.

Jesus does not call these men because of their worthiness to become disciples. The fact that they all have jobs indicates that they were not found to be capable of (or interested in) advanced training as a scribe or other profession associated with their faith. Jesus calls them for reasons ultimately only known to him – but his call is efficacious. These men do become disciples. They become capable and worthy because of the Word that called them. In very practical ways they cease to be what they once were, and become Apostles.

God the Holy Spirit continues to call people to faith in Jesus as the Son of God. That call works faith where once there was only spiritual blindness or death. Called to faith, we become children of God, brothers and sisters in Christ. We become these things not by our own efforts or worthiness, but because the Word of God declares us to be such in the waters of baptism. This is what we cling to. I may not know much about myself, but I trust that God has no such challenges. He knows me thoroughly, and his call on my life is not to be doubted.

If I doubt my faith, if I doubt my worthiness (understandably!), if I begin to wonder if I’m not just lying to myself about all these things I don’t really understand, I fall back on the promise of the Word of God. He has hold of me. He will not let me go. If I will simply rest and trust in his promise, I am secure in my faith. My eyes need to constantly be on the Word of God made flesh, not my particular level of holiness or sanctity or goodness at any given point during the day. Such a focus on myself will quickly lead me to question and despair of my identity. But by focusing on the Word of God who has called me and created faith in me, I can rest assured. Satan may raise many valid questions about my worthiness to be called a child of God, but He cannot countermand the Word of God that has made me such.


January 17, 2015

Our congregation celebrated their centennial tonight.  A wonderful time of friends old and new celebrating God’s goodness together.

What is it that we do as a congregation that matters, that makes a difference in the world?  Every week we hear the Word of God that reminds us of our death in sin, and then assures us of our death in Christ that actually makes us alive.  Every week sins are confessed.  Every week forgiveness is assured.  Every week the Word of God kills and makes alive again.  Every week hope is found not in our resolutions or aspirations, not in the promises of the world around us or our best intentions, but rather in the Word of God that called us into existence, redeemed us from death in sin, and even now, often without our recognizing it, is re-shaping us into more Christ-like people.

In this congregation young and old are baptized in obedience to God’s Word.  In this congregation people kneel around the table the Lord has prepared to taste forgiveness and grace and the promise of life in the tang of cheap wine and processed bread wafers.  Tap water.  Mogan David.  Mass produced communion wafers.  Every week we are reminded that God works through the simplest and most overlooked things.  We are reminded that we follow a man executed as a common criminal, despised and ignored and ridiculed by those more worldly and wise.  We follow a man who is more than a man, but who gave up his glory and majesty in order to become one of us, so that He might save us.

If we’re looking for milestones, it is that Christ crucified and resurrected has been preached for 5,200 weeks in a row.  Many of those weeks more than once.  The dead in Christ have been laid to rest in anticipation of being called forth to eternal life.  People have been comforted with the hope of the Gospel that the sufferings and losses of this world are not the final word on our lives or the lives of those we love.  Meals have been served and consumed.  Fellowship has been lived out.

These are not the milestones that our fame-bleary world demands or expects.  But they are the humble milestones of obedience.  Obedience not to a call of glory but of humility.  A call that demands that those who aspire to be first must learn what it means to be the servant of all.

What a blessing, a privilege, an honor it is to be part of this congregation’s story.  Not the owner of it.  Not the author.  But just one of many characters who have lived their lives out in various ways in this community of faith, this humble little window on the kingdom of God.

Movie Review: Get Low

January 16, 2015

Robert Duvall seemed like an old actor by the time I first started paying attention to movies.  But I’ve got to say that being more than a few years older myself, he is one of a handful of actors that gets my attention, and I’m beginning to suspect that I need to start hunting down his later works systematically.  This movie has the added benefit of including another of my increasingly favorite actors, Bill Murray.

Get Low is a curious movie that deals with the inner ramifications of sin and guilt and forgiveness.  How do we deal with our failures, particularly when those failures cause great damage to people we care about?  What is the meaning and shape of redemption, and on whose terms is it possible?  Is it something we can internally achieve, or is it truly something that we must be given?

Duvall once takes on a mostly unlikable character, though quickly enough we are privy to seeing a little behind the mask of isolation, enough to suspect that what lurks inside is better than the exterior would lead us to believe.  In this case the character is similar to Duvall’s in The Apostle, my favorite film of his so far.  I think his character Felix Bush in Get Low isn’t as strong or compelling, but that happens.  We begin to like Bush because whatever his faults, they appear to be mostly in his past – a complicated and confusing past composed mostly of stories people have come to believe about him.

Like The Apostle, Duvall (an executive producer, but not the director) refuses to give us a typical Hollywood happy ending, though he comes closer to it here than in The Apostle.  Most of the film’s questions aren’t answered until the final ten minutes, and at that point are almost anti-climactic.

There are loose threads throughout the movie, and the supporting cast are mostly foils for Duvall.  Murray is typically understated and amusing even in this regard.

You’ll likely find that you want answers to questions that the movie doesn’t provide.  You’ll know what those questions are when you watch the movie.  They’re some rather big questions about expectations in how Bush will treat the curious collection of people who are suddenly privy to his life near the end of it.  The fact that you’re likely to have these questions, and be waiting for them to be answered right up until the credits roll, is part of Duvall’s purpose, I think.  Our obsession with things that are clearly intended to be secondary should be a reflection on our own morality and theology.  We are no better than the assembled crowds at the end, fascinated for our own purposes and possible benefit, and largely blind to the redemption being worked out quietly both in front of our eyes and behind the scenes.  Bush always realizes what is primary and secondary, and never confuses the two even when those around him would prefer he did.

This is a good view as a character study.  Much of the rest of the cast and plot could be stripped away to a lean, bare dance between Bush and an old girlfriend, Mattie.  A dance that is painful to watch, but once again explores the depths of what it means to be both saint and sinner, struggling to live in and with that ambiguity.

Rest Easy

January 15, 2015

You can rest easy, knowing that one of the largest and most respected publishing companies in the world is doing its part to protect you and other people from offensive material.

That’s right.  Oxford University Press has issued author guidelines dissuading writers it is working with from mentioning pigs, pork, sausage – anything that might be construed as pork-related.  No, it’s not for health reasons.  Rather, they don’t want to risk offending Muslim or Jewish readers.

I’d ask if we could get any stupider, but that’s just silly.  Of course we can.  And will.

Fear and Loathing

January 15, 2015

What in the world is it going to say?  Why did I ever agree to this?

What’s done is done.  I have no idea what the newspaper article Monday will say – and no control over it.  Perhaps that’s the biggest issue for me – the lack of control.  Every week I am blessed with the opportunity and responsibility of saying something useful and true to a bunch of people.  I am tasked with making complicated things somewhat easier to understand, with making challenging realities endurable through the Word of God.  I have to think a lot about what to say and how to say it.  And now the ministry of this congregation is going to be summed up by a reporter with no real idea of who we are or what is important to us.  That’s disconcerting.  Irritating, actually.

I could have written a story for him.  I much would have preferred that.  Did I tell you that I won a state award for journalism when I was 15?  Without even knowing there was a competition?  When I had to borrow a sheet of typing paper from the irritated person next to me?  When I spent about 15 minutes on it?  Third place in state news writing.  Cold turkey.  Yeah, I’m practically William Randolph Hearst, buddy.  I could imagine him rolling his eyes.  With good reason.  But I could have done it.  I would have known how to approach it in a way that would help his readers make sense.  That’s my job.  I translate, after a fashion.  Will he know how to translate?  Does he know what to translate from?

He kept asking about milestones as he searched for something that would make sense to his anonymous readers.  I tried to reiterate that what matters most is what happens every week.  People come to hear good news.  The God who created them speaks to them through his Word.  The God who redeemed them speaks to them through his Word.  The God who dwells within them speaks to them through His Word.  They receive forgiveness, hope, a taste of life both here and now and in eternity.  Milestones are subjective.  What is important enough to be considered a milestone?   It depends a lot on who you ask.  What happens every Sunday is what matters.  God comes to his people and feeds them and encourages them.  If we don’t do this, we have no reason for existence.  We could talk about milestones of attendance or dollars raised or events coordinated all day long, but if we don’t preach the Word of God that calls us to repentance and promises us forgiveness, we are irrelevant.  The Church is the only institution on earth that does this – it is our first and greatest privilege and responsibility.

None of which makes any sense to someone who doesn’t understand Church, who isn’t a part of it.  I assume the article will highlight some of the ministries of our congregation, outreaches to the visually impaired, to those recovering from addictive lifestyles.  It will sound nice, but it will miss the mark of why we do those things.  At one point the reporter seized on my weekly visits to the jail, and he said well that’s something like what Jesus did, isn’t it?  Sort of, but not really.  But how do you explain that to a man with a tape recorder and a deadline?  If I had longer, if he wasn’t thinking in terms of word count and lead paragraphs and possible headlines.  Maybe.

We’ve been proclaiming God’s grace through Jesus Christ for a century. We’ll survive whatever story gets written on Monday.  He was particularly startled at my refusal to have them take my photo in front of the church.  People like to see people in photos.  Yes, that’s true.  But I’m not going to stand there for another cheesy photo.  This isn’t a photo op for me.  It’s not part of my 15 minutes of fame.  And I would prefer that people not make their decisions about the church based on what they think of my hair cut or smile or whatever.  I prefer not to give them that option.

Any publicity is good publicity, so an ad mantra goes.  I don’t buy it.  Maybe somebody else will.  I just hope to endure it.

News Worthy

January 14, 2015

I have to meet with a reporter in a couple of hours.  I am not looking forward to this.

The last time I met with a newspaper reporter I was newly arrived at my first parish.  I had high hopes for what the article might convey about church and the nature of ministry and the Gospel.  What resulted after the reporter compiled and edited was mostly incoherent, with a large cheesy picture of me to top it all off.

Our congregation is celebrating it’s centennial.  It’s a big deal to us, obviously, but I wonder how the reporter is going to approach the article?  Is our congregation a cultural artifact, interesting insofar as we’ve been around a while, like the Presidio or other interesting historical landmarks?  What does one report about an institution that exists for a century?  I’ll be curious to hear his approach, but also very, very skeptical.  No photos of me.  I’m going to ask to see the article before they publish it (something I asked for last time, was guaranteed I could, and then it didn’t happen).  Anniversaries are interesting in that they mark milestones of existence.  But for an institution that is rapidly being labeled culturally irrelevant, why would anyone care about a congregation that has been around for 100 years?  It’s like an invitation to a golden anniversary or retirement party for someone you don’t know.  Sure, you’re happy for them and all, but after that two-second burst of good will, what remains?

It’s an interesting question for congregations to be asking themselves these days as well.