Archive for February, 2015

Reading Ramblings – March 1, 2015

February 22, 2015

Reading Ramblings

Date: Second Sunday in Lent – March 1, 2015

Texts: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22:23-31; Romans 5:1-11; Mark 8:27-38

Context: Our God is the giver of good gifts. Our inclination is to look to ourselves, to hold out our offerings of prayers and good deeds as some sort of badge of honor to God, something that will make God like us better. However all things come from God, and our feeble efforts at good works are of no interest compared to the holiness of a perfectly righteous God. Our actions in and of themselves do not impress him. Good deeds worked through faith in God’s ultimate good gift – his Son Jesus the Christ – are only and always responses to what God has first given us.

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16– This reading emphasizes God as the giver of promises, and as will be seen by reading further (which you should always do!), the ultimate promise-keeper. He promises Abraham a multitude of offspring, something unexpected for a man of Abraham’s age. God gives promises to Sarah through Abraham as well. The two will conceive and bear a son. The promise seems perhaps cruel, a taunting jest to a married couple well past the hope of ever having a child of their own. But the God who makes promises is the God who is fully capable of keeping them, and can himself cause even the most unlikely promises to be kept. The God who promises me forgiveness in Jesus Christ despite my continued sinfulness is the God who promised an elderly couple a miraculous child. If He could fulfill that promise to Abraham and Sarah, I can trust his promises through their descendant, Jesus of Nazareth, for forgiveness and eternal life.

Psalm 22:23-31 – This section of Psalm 22 evokes the Genesis 17 reading. Verse 23 emphasizes the great number of those worshiping God, and the fact that they are Jacob’s (the grandson of Abraham) descendants. Those worshiping are evidence themselves of God’s faithfulness to Abraham, a fitting exhortation to give thanks to the God who has fulfilled his promises to Abraham. Starting at verse 27 keywords draw the hearer/reader to a remembrance of Genesis 17, keywords such as nations and kingship. Again, God’s faithfulness is in view, so that the story of his promises fulfilled in one generation should be declared to the next that they, too, might place their faith and trust in God the Father.

Romans 5:1-11 – God promises that the sacrifice of his Son results in our justification. We are granted amnesty and forgiveness from our sinful rebellion against God, so that we need not fear his wrath, but rather can be at peace with him and therefore with ourselves and one another. Yet despite these good and very real gifts, we also deal with the continued effects of our sinful nature in a sinful world. Justification with God does not immediately result in a life free of suffering. But because we have peace, that suffering changes tone. We do not enter it as passive victims, but as victors. Though suffering is unpleasant, we can bear in mind that the suffering is temporary, and that we have the ability to impact the effect suffering will have on us. We suffer as those who have hope – hope not simply that we won’t ever have to suffer, but hope that says regardless of what we do or will suffer, we need never suffer again with God’s wrath.

Mark 8:27-38 – Jesus’ reaction to Peter’s attempts to dissuade him from his appointed path are met with sharp rebuke. Jesus had already faced direct temptation from Satan in the wilderness after his baptism (1:12-13) as we heard a few weeks ago in the Gospel reading. Satan tempted Jesus to disobey his heavenly Father’s directives, to seek another way of allegedly accomplishing the same goals. Why slug it out day in and day out among the sweaty masses with signs and wonders when you could display your identity from the top of God’s Temple in Jerusalem? Wouldn’t a quick moment of worshiping me instead of God be worth it, if it might deliver all the kingdoms of the world immediately into Jesus’ hands? The offers sound ludicrous but the temptation and sin inherently are ludicrous. Someone standing outside the effects of temptation can see how hollow and shallow the offers being made are. Yet for those in the midst of temptation, the offers seem truly tantalizing. Satan’s temptations to Jesus had to be attractive, else they could hardly be considered temptations.

The main issue was whether or not Jesus would remain faithful to his Father’s plan or deviate. The temptations had to be real and strong enough for Jesus to actually consider pursuing them. The very human fear Jesus undoubtedly had about the exhausting and agonizing death He would suffer made Satan’s offers desirable, and that temptation remained very real here and now with Peter essentially (and perhaps unknowingly even) tempting Jesus away from obedience.

Jesus does not have an academic understanding of temptation, the mechanics and nuances. He has experienced it personally. He knows how appealing it can be in the moment, how badly we want to believe the lies that always accompany temptation. Our great high priest, as Paul refers to him in Hebrews, fully empathizes with us. His sacrifice on our behalf is every bit as grounded in reality as his temptations. Who He came to be on our behalf, and his faithfulness and obedience in maintaining that path and identity despite temptation, guarantees us that his death and resurrection belong to us as well, and that through his suffering we are healed.

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Personal

February 19, 2015

The young man who approached the booth on campus was clean shaven and polite.  He wondered what the booth was and why the elderly gentleman behind it was here on a regular basis.  They chatted a bit about this and that but it was clear that the young man presumed there was a spiritual reason and wanted to talk about it.

I like listening to other people share their faith and engage with people who have questions about that faith.  I do this as part of my work while recognizing that a great deal of style and personality comes through not just how things are said but what is said.  Theology is evidenced in the choice of words and approaches.  Listening to others gives me insight into their understandings of faith and God and themselves, and that is immensely valuable as I try to make Scripture relevant and meaningful to people week after week.

At some point the question came up.  It often does in discussions with those who hold the Biblical Christian faith at arm-length.  What about all those people before Jesus?  Or what about people yet today who have never met a Christian?  Never heard about Jesus?  Never had the chance to know God?  Are they going to hell because they don’t have faith in Jesus?  The expression of the question can vary but the basic idea is the same.  Behind it is usually the firm determination that they can’t put their faith in a God who would be so cruel as to consign so many people – many of them doing the best they can and good by the standards of the world – to eternal punishment for a quirk of geography or timing.

The answer is pretty straightforward in my opinion.  That is God’s business, not mine.  It draws people back to some of the fundamental precepts of Biblical Christianity, chiefly that God is God and I am not God.  God is creator and I am the creature.  Therefore, as Job discovered, there are limits to the demands I can place on God for explaining himself or detailing to me his plans.  There might be gentler ways to answer, but the question is a good one, and it deserves the best answer.  Best answers aren’t always satisfying, but at least they’re honest.

The question also reveals a rather lopsided familiarity with Scripture.  It has heard about the love of God in Jesus Christ, but has it heard about the rest of Scripture and how God reveals himself and his intentions towards creation?  It seems to presume a God ready to pounce, eager to punish, actually looking for reasons to catch us in our sin so that He can consign us to eternal damnation in glee.

This isn’t a Biblical description of God in the least.  What about God’s declaration in Ezekiel 33:10-11?  God does not desire our deaths!  He desires that we should live.  Why won’t we live?  Was God lying to Abraham when He promised him that through him all the earth would be blessed? (Genesis 12:3)  To picture God as eager to damn people on a technicality that He created is to not know how God reveals himself to us in Scripture.

Finally, this sort of question is an attempt (conscious or unconscious) to change the topic.  The topic is what do you make of the Biblical assertion that Jesus of Nazareth was in fact the Son of God incarnate, and that his resurrection is the evidence of his divinity and therefore the truth of everything He taught?  We can ask questions all day.  We can demand that God tell us this or that or the other.  But God first of all wants us to pay attention to what He has already told us.  Standing right there in history and geography.  A man.  An execution and burial.  An empty tomb.  Reports of encountering him alive again.  Physically.  Tangibly.

This is the Gospel.  This is the question the Gospel places to each person it comes to – what are you going to do about the report of Jesus of Nazareth resurrected from the dead and, further still, ascended into heaven?  Are you going to trust it, and in trusting it trust what He preached and taught?  Are you going to deny it?  On what basis?  This is the question that needs to be answered, and it is a question that each individual must answer for themselves.

I gave the young man my card.  I’ve given out a lot of cards over the past few years.  Hundreds of them, in fact.  I don’t hear from many of the people that ask for them or that I offer them to.  But whether I hear from them or not, I pray that the Gospel continues to confront them until they answer the question of what of Jesus of Nazareth? for themselves.  And I pray that they do the homework necessary to convince them that – as unlikely as it may seem – He was and is who He claimed and claims to be, and that in that conclusion they would find life and peace with all the other questions that God does not see fit to answer.

Ashes to Ashes

February 18, 2015

The acrid smoke of dried, burned palm leaves is a different way to start the day.  Watching the flames lick at the fibrous material, gradually leaping upwards towards my fingers.  There is a hypnotic aspect to the process of making Ash Wednesday ashes.  Figuring out how to tease apart the individual leaves folded in dryness so that the flames can burn more thoroughly, waiting to see how far up it will burn before it dies or I have to let go.  Noticing the faint wisp of condensation when I exhale that is quickly surpassed by the curls of grey smoke.  I suppose that being a guy, fire has been a source of enchantment for me since I was a little boy.  The warnings were true then and now.  If you play with fire you get burned, and it’s only the illusion of control or the extent of our immunity to pain that keeps us from seeing this.

The palm branch from last Palm Sunday.  The ironic reminder of the fickleness of my heart.  One moment abounding in joy and gratitude for yet another of the Lord’s abundant blessings.  The next moment wrapped up in the selfishness of my needs and wants and perceived injuries.  One moment gently teaching 100 grade school kids about the symbolism and significance of the tradition, the next moment cursing any number of drivers in my path on the freeway.  Fickle indeed.  Hosanna! one moment, Crucify! the next.  I understand that crowd, as I watch the leaves bend and burn into ash.  I am that crowd.  I am burned through and through. 

Eventually the smoke is finished and there are enough ashes to work with.  I crumble and grind them up into more of a powder, pouring them into a small bowl before adding a little water and a few drops of scented oil.  I tend to gravitate to myrrh or frankincense, but this year I choose spikenard.  The aroma is intense and sickly sweet, the smell of death covered over.  My death covered over.  My ashes made beautiful in the burial oils.  He never needed the burial oils for himself, but He shares them with me in this way.

I observe God’s creativity in the many different types of hair and foreheads and eyebrows He creates.  How many different textures of skin.  Things I generally don’t notice leap out in the close-up encounter with a very small area of another person.  The hesitancy of young children receiving them for the first time; a strange and radical departure from the hip-hop youth group culture they are already being engulfed in.  An ancient tradition without a synthesized, auto-tuned voice.  No flashing lights.  Strange and foreign and perhaps even dangerous?  The weary smiles of adults who have borne the ashes year after year, each year the weight growing heavier as their own strength wanes.

I am that crowd that calls Hosanna! and Crucify!  But I am also more than this.  I am made more than this as the grace of God is poured into my life.  As forgiveness infuses the ashes of my deserved death, and for the space of this lifetime coexists.  Sin and grace.  Judgement and sainthood.  The ashes and the oil together until death parts us.

For death remains my destiny, but it is not my entire destiny.  God chooses to bring sweetness even out of death – to his glory, not mine.  He rescues me not because I deserve to be rescued but because He is glorious and merciful and loving.  The smart ass in the classroom is quick to joke – If sin ultimately works to God’s glory, maybe we should all get busy sinning some more!  I was that smart ass in the back of the Confirmation class.  I still am, though now I’m more often in the front of the classroom.  St. Paul shakes his head wearily.  We are such predictable, broken creatures, even across two thousand years.  What shall we say then, smart ass?  Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?  Should we sin more to increase God’s glory?  Don’t be a maroon!  (Romans 6:1-2a, liberally paraphrased with apologies to Bugs Bunny)

The consequence of sin is death.  The glory of God is mercy, mercy despite my stupidity and culpability.  Mercy to infinity and beyond, as Buzz Lightyear would say.  And if I am truly giving thanks to God for that mercy, truly standing in awe of that mercy and how I don’t deserve it,  I can’t in the same breath seek to sin more.  I am fickle, but just like a computer, the illusion of multi-tasking is just that, an illusion.  I can only be doing one thing at a time.  Very quickly perhaps.  Hosanna! to Crucify! in less than a week seems slow in the age of instant everything.  But only one thing at a time.  If I sin, I do it to my glory, not his.  If I am truly aware of his mercy and glory in the moment, I can’t sin.  If only for that fraction of a second.  More often than not all someone will see in me is ashes.  But every now and then, in the midst of the bitter smoke, there is a faint whiff of perfume that is so unlike me that nobody could confuse me for the source.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  But not forever.  Only for a time.  The sweetness of God’s mercy will make even the bitterness of death transient.  Beyond death, the ashes are wiped away forever, and I will be clean and white and alive forever, to his glory.

Back on Campus

February 17, 2015

Yesterday I met Larry, a kind gentleman who donated the use of his large parcel of land in town for an afternoon airsoft battle/birthday party that my sons attended.  We chatted as we stood around both dropping off the kids and picking them up, and he mentioned that he goes out to UCSB every week.  He has built a little booth modeled after this one, and various people come up to talk with him.  His sign just says “Got Questions?”.

I stopped by this morning to watch him in action.  I did campus ministry at a major university for many years, and I wanted to see how things may or may not have changed.  In the span of an hour or so, I watched him chat with at least four different people including a very scruffy man on a bike, a police officer on a bike, and at least two students.  For one of the students, I was there to contribute to the conversation.

I’m debating doing something similar on another campus here in town.  What struck me was that the smaller size of the university population made it less of a crush of people between classes.  When I was doing my undergrad work and part-time campus ministry there were 40,000+ students on campus.  At a school less than half that size there is a decidedly different feel, and that may enable ministries like Larry’s to be more impactful.

It was great to be back on a college campus again, though strange to be an outsider both in terms of age and enrollment status.  As I walked down one of the main malls, none of the various tables and booths set up to advertise for various things tried to hand me pamphlets or invite me to their functions.  I don’t fit their target demographic, which is something I worry about in trying to start campus ministry.  Then again, perhaps because I don’t fit their demographic (though I’m closer to it than Larry!), I’ll have the opportunity to talk to people who wouldn’t otherwise talk with me.

I’m glad Larry is doing what he’s doing, and glad that people respond to him.  I pray that I’ll have similar opportunities.  It was refreshing to see a young person asking questions, sharing about themselves freely, seeking to learn more even as they made it clear where they themselves stood.  It makes me even more intent to get onto campus regularly.  Now it’s just a matter of finding time….

Meanwhile, in Japan…

February 16, 2015

hotels without humans are being planned.

Not that humans won’t stay in these hotels, they just won’t work in them.  Or more accurately, fewer of them will work in them.  It will be interesting to see how customer service evolves with a robotic staff!

Reading Ramblings – February 22, 2015

February 15, 2015

Reading Ramblings

Date: First Sunday in Lent – February 22, 2015

Texts: Genesis 22:1-18; Psalm 25:1-10; James 1:12-18; Mark 1:9-15

Context: The season of Lent is the preparation season for the celebration of Easter. We are Easter people, people of the resurrection, but people also of the short attention span, people of the quick fix, people of the pop-a-pill. We are people who like to get to the good stuff and bypass as much of the bad stuff as possible. Lent slows us down. Lent tells us that the good news of Jesus Christ is only good news so long as we have faced squarely the very bad news of what our life without Christ looks like. Only in acknowledging our sin can we truly appreciate forgiveness. Only by staring death in the face are we able to truly rejoice with the promise of the resurrection.

Genesis 22:1-18 – Without a doubt this is one of the most challenging passages in all of Scripture. That God would test Abraham, that God would allow Abraham to doubt and wonder and consider the reality of losing the promised son he had waited so long for, even if God never intended to actually require Abraham to go through with the sacrifice – this story resonates in the heart of every parent and every child, regardless of age.

We find it appalling that God would even make such a request of Abraham, yet Abraham himself seems at the very least resigned to the appropriateness of the request. He never questions. Never balks. He obeys. Perhaps he understands God as the author and owner of all salvation. At the very least he understands God as the source of the blessings he has enjoyed since leaving his family. God is the one who promised him a son – who is Abraham to deny God what He asks? Does the Lord not indeed give, and is the Lord therefore not entitled to take away (Job 1:21)?

Abraham does not yet know God, certainly not as we know him now, through his Word and through his Word made flesh in Jesus Christ. Our outrage should not be at what God asked of Abraham, but at how quickly we – who know that God would never ask for human sacrifice from us – how quickly we are to dictate what God can and can’t do in our lives.

Psalm 25:1-10 – The recurring theme in these verses is one of seeking the Lord’s wisdom and teaching (vs.4-5, 8-10). Alternating with this them is that of faithfulness and trust in the Lord (vs.1-3, 6-7). These are the two aspects of our relationship with our God. First and foremost is obedience and faithfulness, but this can come only if God reveals his intentions and desires for our lives.

God the Father’s most fervent desire for us is that we be in proper relationship with his Son, Jesus the Christ, and as such enjoy the presence of God the Holy Spirit dwelling within us. While we may fret over the decisions of our lives, we are called first and foremost to trust in God, and particularly in his mercy and steadfast love (v.6), and the promise of forgiveness through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ (v.7). If we understand God’s disposition to us as one of love and mercy and forgiveness, the particular decisions of our life become less intimidating. We live in the grace of God! We are free to live as his children in faith and obedience, rather than in constant fear and worry of disappointing him or somehow failing to live up to his plans for our lives!

James 1:12-18 – Our continued sinful existence in a sinful world means that we will face difficult situations. We will indeed experience trials and temptations, through which we are exhorted to stand fast to eternal life. We are sometimes inclined to credit God as the source of a particular trial or temptation, but James is a good reminder that temptation originates from within us. It isn’t that God has to work to tempt us – we are constantly a temptation to ourselves, constantly conceiving of sin in our hearts and minds. This is our natural disposition, the reason that the Son of God had to come into this world to die in our place as the final, perfect sacrifice for sin.

Rather, we are to see God the Father as the source of blessing, not trial and temptation. He is the source of life, not the source of death. He never changes his disposition towards us, despite our constant fluctuations in attitude and faithfulness towards him.

Mark 1:9-15 – Jesus must face temptation. This is not to say that He has not yet been tempted in his life – that would indeed be miraculous! But now that He has in obedience declared his intention to publicly obey his Father’s plan for his life, now that He intends to take on himself the sin of the world, He must be tested. Mark’s account of his temptation is very brief, and we must turn to Matthew 4 or Luke 4 for the fuller account. Mark is perhaps crafting his Gospel as a drama, more like a play that emphasizes action rather than exposition. What matters is that Jesus faces temptation head-on, that temptation occurs over a prolonged period of time, and that God the Father provides for his Son during this period away from other people.

Scholars are intrigued by a unique detail of Mark’s account – the inclusion of wild animals. This seems like a curious detail for a Gospel that is so streamlined and terse. Why does Mark mention this? The wild animals are not portrayed as antagonistic to Jesus. Are they tending to him as well? Is this a precursor of the sort of changes in the natural order that Isaiah prophesies (Isaiah 11:6-9; Isaiah 65:17-25)? Is this hearkening back to Genesis 3, when Adam and Eve, surrounded by the wild animals God had created, faced Satan’s temptations and failed?

Jesus resists temptation and begins his public ministry (Mark 1:15). From Matthew and Luke we know that Jesus resists temptation not through supernatural means, but through familiarity with the Word of God and a willingness to use this rather than substitute his own preferences. As such he demonstrates his worthiness to continue on the path laid out for him by his heavenly Father, a path that ultimately leads to Jerusalem, betrayal, death, resurrection, ascension, and a glorious return. A path that ultimately opens to you and I forgiveness and grace from God the Father, the presence of God the Holy Spirit, and the promise of life everlasting.

Heaven Is for Real – Still II

February 14, 2015

About a month ago I blogged about a best-selling book about a child’s alleged visit to heaven.  The boy has been recanting the book for at least two years and the book has finally been pulled from publication by the publisher.

The initial NPR article I linked to didn’t have much detail, but my wife forwarded me this article with considerably more detail.  It reads pretty much like I expected it would, implying that the estranged husband seems to be responsible for exaggerating or even fabricating material in his son’s name.  Of course the role of money as a motivator – both for personal success as well as in dealing with what must be monumental bills for the boy’s treatment – is front and center.  Implicated are a Christian publishing and merchandising culture that seizes on opportunities to make a buck.  Nothing terribly unexpected.

The one thing I did find interesting was this quote early in the article from noted public pastor John MacArthur:

“All these supposed trips to heaven are hoaxes, and they prey on people in the most vulnerable way, because they treat death in a superficial, deceptive fashion.”

I have a hard time accepting this, while at the same time admitting that I am a skeptic myself.  MacArthur goes so far as to assert authoritatively that no such experiences occur.  I’m not sure on what basis he can make such an assertion.  Reading his Wikipedia profile (linked to above) it is clear that MacArthur is not shy about authoritative statements about what can and can’t happen, what God the Holy Spirit does and doesn’t do.  While I appreciate what I presume to be a fierce resistance against the exploitation of God’s people by frauds of one stripe or another, again I don’t see how he can claim this.

I regularly work with individuals from a broad array of Christian persuasions, from Roman Catholics to Pentecostals and New Agers and atheists.  I always attempt to be respectful of different Christian traditions even when they differ from my own.  I’m not comfortable with charismatic and Pentecostal practices either (as indicated in MacArthur’s Wiki write-up), but I can’t see a Scriptural basis for asserting that they are always outright lies and fabrications, well-intentioned or otherwise.  I don’t see the Scriptural passages that state that God has definitively chosen to stop working the way He did in the early Church.

As such, I have to affirm that such things and practices could be true.  I trust that some people are privileged with a glimpse of heaven, either in a traumatic, near-death experience or in other forms.  I can’t say whether or not any specific such claim is true or not, other than by comparing what is reported with Scripture.  If what the individual claims they did or saw or experienced contradicts the Word of God, then I know that person must be mistaken or incorrect, either in whole or in part.  Where no such clear contradiction exists, I’m willing to grant that it might be authentic.

But always the question becomes – to what end?  If the experience was authentic then what purpose does it serve?  I believe it must serve the same purpose as all of God’s revelation – to point us to Christ.  If it doesn’t do this, it is being misused, whether specifically for personal gain or not.  Such experiences stand in a long history of revelatory experience both in and out of Scripture.  The importance is to evaluate and then incorporate such experiences into this larger continuum, a continuum ultimately intended to direct others not to the individuals who experienced such things, but to Christ through whom such experiences have ultimate meaning.

I haven’t seen the Heaven Is for Real movie nor do I intend to.  Reading the book was more than enough.  The fact that another, similar book has been discredited does not necessarily mean that all such accounts are false.  But we need to take these accounts for what they are worth, which is far secondary to the Lord and life to which they should always and exclusively point.

More Reasons for Skepticism

February 13, 2015

I’m not convinced nor compelled by the increasing pitch of demands to “trust me” issued by pharmaceutical companies, government agencies, their representatives, and their proponents in the public.  Keep screaming all you want about “trust me this is safe”.  Little ditties like this will continue to fuel my skepticism of these claims, no matter how well-intentioned they might be.  No explanation in the article is given for why the FDA thinks making this information harder to come by is reasonable, and I won’t either.  Somebody thinks it’s a good idea, or a justifiable one.  Tragically, I am not likely to become privy to the rationale for their policy-making.  Hopefully, I won’t someday become a statistic cited when people finally begin to take accountability seriously.

Fun With History

February 12, 2015

Or more accurately, exploring the rich and hitherto untapped horizons of potential history is fun.

Wet Bar Wednesday – Quebec

February 11, 2015

Not the city.

So I’m trying to develop a better appreciation for gin.  As I think I’ve mentioned, it’s not my favorite liquor by a long shot, and the only one that really has tasted half-way good to me is Hendricks, which is a fairly different gin recipe relying on a lot of cucumber influence.

I accidentally bought some gin at Trader Joe’s some time back, forgetting that it was the scotch that a buddy of mine had recommended to me (another liquor I haven’t spent much time with).  So I sat down with my large bartender’s guide and found this recipe:

Quebec

  • 1 part gin
  • 1 part whiskey
  • 1 part lemon juice
  • 1 dash bitters

Shake everything together with ice and strain into a glass (or leave the ice in).  It was really, really sour and a bit bitter – the whiskey didn’t nearly cancel out the lemon’s sourness.  I added a bit of agave sweetener and it was much, much better.  Maybe you’ll like yours more sour, but hopefully either way, you’ll be able to enjoy!