Archive for March, 2015

Reading Ramblings – March 29, 2015

March 22, 2015

Reading Ramblings

Date: Sixth Sunday in Lent – Palm Sunday – March 29, 2015

Texts: Zechariah 9:9-12; Psalm 118:19-29; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 14:1-15:47 or John 12:20-43

Context: The final Sunday in Lent begins Passion Week, the final week of Jesus’ ministry. The week runs the spectrum of emotions from the giddiness of Palm Sunday’s entry to Jerusalem, to the trauma of Maunday Thursday and Good Friday, concluding with the joy of Easter Sunday. My goal every Passion Week is to take each day in turn, focusing on the emotions and themes of that day, rather than leaping ahead to what is coming. The joy of Easter is best experienced only after the sorrow of Good Friday.

Zechariah 9:9-12 – Zechariah’s time of ministry is after the Babylonian exile, as Jews have already begun returning to Judea to rebuild Jerusalem. Chapter 9 prophecies first the rise of a great Greek conqueror (vs.1-8 are general prophecy, while v.13 specifies the nationality of this conqueror, understood to be Alexander the Great). Verse 9 prophecies the arrival of a new king of God’s people, something they have not had for close to 80 years. This king will arrive in an unusual fashion, very different from the mighty war horses of other conquerors and kings. He is identified by his humility rather than his pride. Rather than being a warlord he will bring an end to warfare. He will preach peace, and establish a rule that encompasses creation itself. It is this prophecy Jesus likely has in mind when He decides how to enter Jerusalem for the last time.

Psalm 118:19-29 – The selected reading is the second portion of the psalm. It seems to have been used as a psalm of thanksgiving that involves a speaker and the congregation. The speaker requests entrance and is told who may enter through the gates. The speaker then gives thanks (v.21), and verses 22-27 are the response of the congregation. They proclaim the unlikely source of salvation (a rejected stone that turns out to be the cornerstone – the most important stone in the whole building). Verse 28 has the individual speaking again, giving thanks as they did in v.21. The congregation responds in verse 29 with an exhortation to praise God.

Philippians 2:5-11 – Paul began his exhortation to unity in 2:1-2, and now encourages the Philippians in this regard using Jesus as an example. Jesus is an example of humility in that He emptied himself of the glory that was due him as the Son of God. He took on our form, and took on the form of the most humble of people. Nor was this enough – He was further willing to be crucified. This flawless obedience even to death will result in his exaltation. Whereas He came in humility and meekness and lowliness, He will one day return in glory to receive the honor and obedience that are rightly his.

Mark 14:1-15:47 – It is traditional on Palm Sunday to read the entire Passion narrative, to set the context for the week of worship that will follow. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus enters Jerusalem back in chapter 10. Our reading this morning picks up on Tuesday or Wednesday, and continues through to his crucifixion and burial. Because we don’t get the entry into Jerusalem with the reading, we miss out a little on the span of emotions and images that Mark conveys in his terse way.  Through it all we see Jesus as the humble king described in Zechariah, submitting himself as Paul describes to the Philippians, ultimately to death.

Facing Death

March 18, 2015

You can begin by reading these two essays – first this one, and then this one.  It will take you a few moments, but then again, we’re talking about your death here.  Invest a little.  I’ve linked to articles by Chad Bird before, and I find that he often has thoughtful things to say and a poetic way of saying them.

The issue of how Christians approach death bears a lot of consideration as the traditional ways of doing things pass away.  While such changes are not always bad, given the lack of foundational teaching in general in many congregations, people are left to sort things out for themselves with pop culture as the formative force.

Now that you’ve read the two articles, here are a few thoughts.

First, I don’t think that cremation poses all of the problems that Bird attributes to it.  Whether a body is placed in the ground in a coffin or the ashes are interred, we recognize that while the physical body is important Biblically, it is also limited.  It is very possible to lavish the love and care on the body that Bird rightly calls for, and this can and should be done prior to either burial or cremation.  The body goes into the ground and eventually decays – the ashes to ashes, dust to dust reality of death.  I think it’s interesting that Bird takes issue with cremation as unnatural and contrary to Christian theology but doesn’t take issue with the practice of embalming or otherwise attempting to preserve the body in an unnatural state.  The same argument can be used against either practice – there is the danger that it might contradict Biblical Christianity, but neither practice necessarily contradicts it.

Cremation accelerates, in a different fashion, the decay that a body normally undergoes after burial.  Whether I intellectually know that a body has decayed over decades or centuries, or whether that body is cremated first seems to make little practical difference.  This of course is a danger, because Americans are notorious pragmatists.  This is not always a good or safe way of looking at the world.  We do look forward to a new, perfected body.  The things we do and say about this body when we have died do matter, and the memorial is a wonderful time to drive this point home.

I’ve joked for many years that when I die I want to be laminated and made into a lamp.  I initially joked about this because it was such an absurd idea.  Now, it isn’t nearly so absurd – we can actually do this.  Which means I need to come up with another joking response so my wife doesn’t get any strange ideas about my dead body.  The dead body needs to be treated with respect and dignity.  Propping it up at a party is in poor taste at the very least, and can lead to confusion theologically.

Christians need to be reminded regularly that they need to have a memorial service.  This is the teaching opportunity that Bird refers to.  The opportunity to proclaim the reality of death.  The opportunity to come face to face with our mortality and recognize it for the traumatic and awful thing that it is, rather than sugar-coat it into some sort of circle-of-life naturalistic crap.  Everything within us screams that death is unnatural, and the memorial service is the place and time to raise this issue head on, and then discuss the hope we are provided in Jesus Christ.  There is an answer to that primal rejection of death as unnatural, and it is not to ignore that response, but rather affirm that death is unnatural.  It is not what we were intended for, and there is hope for continued life where death can no longer touch us.

The essay on celebrations of life ties into this.  Memorial services are Christian.  As such, the main emphasis should be Christ, not us.  This forms the context in which we deal with our grief, our guilt, the myriad of other feelings that rise up and threaten to overwhelm us with the death of a loved one or the anticipation of our own.  As such memorials are for the community, not for the departed.  I have people that ask me to do a celebration of life rather than a memorial.  I don’t care what we call the service, as memorial can be just as self-focused as celebration of life.  But I make it clear that the intent of the service is to proclaim Christ as the hope of the departed and the hope available to all those affected by their death.  I limit the amount of time that is focused on the departed because it invariably becomes an over-simplified, white-washed review of the person’s life.  I intentionally avoid making broad assertions about the deceased.  The people assembled probably have a much better idea than I of the particular faults and weaknesses of the departed, and trying to make them into a saint is dangerous work at best, and contrary to the faith at worst.

The other aspect of this entire discussion is the limitations and constraints placed on families when they bury loved ones.  Is there a place for the Church to be involved in those aspects of things?  I think so, although it can be complicated.  Out here in the west, very few churches have cemeteries attached to them.  One of the most moving aspects of Christianity in the Midwest is the little rural church with the graveyard right outside or across the street.  Such arrangements might allow the Church to be of greater help to families in practical ways – minimizing the cost of something that has grown to be a very lucrative business niche.  It’s one thing to shake our Christian fingers at practices that make us nervous.  It is quite another to actually assist families financially if necessary to make choices that we feel better reflect the hope in which the departed lived and died.

Biting the Bullet

March 17, 2015

We just purchased our airline tickets for my/our European adventure this summer!  I always get butterflies when making those sorts of purchases (big expensive ones!), but I’m so excited!

On the Defensive

March 16, 2015

If you have a gym membership, and if you actually go to the gym, and if you actually work out and get sweaty and use the lovely locker room facilities you are paying for, you should probably check the fine print and company policy as to who might be in there with you.  It just might be that your gym allows people of the opposite sex – who are more comfortable considering themselves your sex rather than their biological one – might be allowed to be in there with you.  And nobody is likely to be checking whether they are legitimately transgendered (is there such a thing?), or just perving.

A Michigan woman was recently shocked to discover a man in the woman’s locker room with her.  Or at least someone that looked like a man.  When she complained to the local staff and then corporate headquarters, her membership was rescinded for being intolerant.  It urns out the man considered himself transgendered.  The company allows self-identified transgendered people to use the locker rooms of the opposite sex, and people who disagree with this can be deemed intolerant.

Who monitors who self-declares themselves transgendered?  What does this mean?  Can this fluctuate from day to day?  Is there some sort of paperwork that has to be filed when joining, claiming transgendered status and indicating which locker room you will be utilizing?  Would this person then be guilty of misconduct if they decided to use the other locker room upon occasion?

Reading Ramblings – March 22, 2015

March 15, 2015

Reading Ramblings

Date: Fifth Sunday in Lent – March 22, 2015

Texts: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 119:9-16; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:(32-34)35-45

Context: This is the last week of Lent as observed as such. The following Sunday, while still Lent, is more typically celebrated as Palm Sunday, with a corresponding emphasis on the joyful entry to Jerusalem as well as a preview of the fuller week’s events.

Jeremiah 31:31-34 – The words of the prophet Jeremiah no doubt were included in Jesus’ teaching to the men on the road to Emaus, as He opened Scripture to them. The promise of the new covenant is inclusive of all God’s people – not just Judah, but even rebellious Israel, the northern kingdom. The nature of the new covenant consists of God’s law or word being written in his people’s heart, such that his people are now faithful to him, unlike their wandering forefathers. It is not a matter of head knowledge of the Law, some deeper understanding of God’s commandments. Rather, it is a transformed people who know hold God’s Word and Law as their life and heart, obedient to it by his covenant. This covenant is characterized by God’s forgiveness of the sins of the past. This is the new covenant that Jesus speaks of with his disciples at their last supper, a covenant inaugurated in his blood and entered into by faith.

Psalm 119:9-16 – The long, acrostic poem, Psalm 119, emphasizes in each stanza (each corresponding to a letter of the Hebrew alphabet) the blessing that is the Word of God. It is this word that protects the young man. His seeking after God’s word can help him not to stray away into impurity. Towards this end the young man has stored up God’s word, memorized it and meditates on it so that he can call it to mind in the moment of temptation or uncertainty. The young man stands ready to declare the Word of God as well as meditating on it personally. The goal is that the young man – metaphorical for Israel, perhaps, will not forget God’s Word, unlike those who have come before him.

Hebrews 5:1-10 – Paul begins his discussion of Jesus as our high priest at the close of chapter 14. In those closing verses Paul emphasizes the unique nature of Jesus as our high priest, who understands the temptations we face because He also faced them. As such we can be assured that Jesus as high priest and mediator on our behalf, stands ready to supply us with his mercy and grace to withstand temptation.

Verse 5 distinguishes Jesus in his role as high priest further. Truly, every high priest understands temptation, and in fact must offer sacrifice for his own inability to resist it. The role of high priest was special and should be (but was not always, particularly in the two centuries before Jesus) above the personal ambitions of men. Not even Jesus aspired to this role, but rather was designated to it by God the Father. Now embracing that role, Jesus who interceded often during his earthly ministry on behalf of others, continues to offer prayers for and power to those in need. His greatest blessing however is eternal life and salvation, something that human high priests could not convey in their role or through their intercessions.

Mark 10: (32-34)35-45 – Jesus is en route to Jerusalem for the final time. He shares with his disciples for a third and final time (in Mark’s gospel) the fate that awaits him. The first time He shared this with them, Peter sought to dissuade him from his appointed path (Mark 8:27-38). The second time He shared this with them, the disciples fell to discussing who among them would be accounted the greatest when Jesus came into his kingdom (Mark 9:30-37). After this final disclosure, specifically James and John seek their own glory by asking Jesus to seat them in the places of honor (closest to the host) at his victory banquet in glory. It is ironic that Jesus’ inner circle – Peter, James, and John – are each designated as fundamentally missing the point of Jesus’ prophecies regarding his future in Jerusalem.

Jesus engages with them, asking them the rhetorical question that they ought to answer ‘No’ to – can you suffer through what I will suffer through? James and John in their ignorance miss the nature of the question, and instead affirm their loyalty to Jesus. Just as Peter will after the Last Supper, they are essentially promising to stay with Jesus come what may, a promise that all of his disciples will break when they flee from the mob that comes to arrest him in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Jesus could be angry and frustrated at this third and final inability to hear what He was saying. Instead, He deals with them gently and lovingly, and tries to teach once again that what matters in the Kingdom of God is fundamentally different than what we think matters in our worldly ordering of things. While here we are obsessed about status and prestige, those in the Kingdom of God have learned and been gifted with the ability to set aside such personal ambitions, and to see that true glory lies in serving others, rather than ourselves.

God’s Word continues to call us to this truth today. As American Christianity reels in many respects from a culture that his cast itself off from Christianity and has become hostile, we should be careful that our zeal for evangelism is not really a subtle and subconscious (or conscious!) attempt to re-establish our personal glory, the glory of our congregations and churches in the larger culture. Our job is to love God and love our neighbor as the Holy Spirit provides us opportunities, and not for our own benefit or even the pre-conceived benefits of the Church. We are called to love and serve one another even when we are not thanked for it. Even when people don’t appreciate it. Even when people don’t reciprocate.

We can’t be fully free of our personal and collective pride in this life. Thanks be to God, who has promised to deliver us through his forgiveness and grace, so that in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ, these deeply ingrained sinful thoughts and blindness will be removed from us, and we can truly see and worship our Lord even as we truly see and love our neighbor selflessly!

To Your Health

March 14, 2015

If you are a woman, or if you know a woman, or a girl, you need to read this article.  Read it just because you’re a man, if that’s the case.  Pretty much everyone should read this, and investigate and research and think about what we are doing to ourselves and one another.  We need to remember that the luxuries of choice we tout and take for granted so easily often come at a very steep and under-reported price.

You Don’t Say?

March 13, 2015

I’m posting this because maybe it will generate some more discussion, and maybe some of that discussion will either be able to affirm or disprove the research referenced.  The initial article above is only marginally useful as a summary.  I’m not sure about the site that is posting it or the general reputability of the data.  More interesting to me is the link to this information.  It is far more detailed and specific than the initial article.  It appears to be based off this German site (which has horrible translations available through Google).  Again, I can’t verify the nature of the data, but it’s fascinating.  Oh wait, I just figured out that if you ask it to display in English, it takes you to the page.  Gotcha.

Again, I don’t consider myself anti-vaccination.  There are some very real illnesses and diseases out there that vaccines are apparently quite helpful in reducing the risk of.  However, I maintain that we don’t know nearly enough about what we’re putting into our bodies and the long term effects of these things, particularly with the proliferation of vaccines in the past decades and plans for new ones.  I sincerely hope that good research as well as accountability practices will continue to improve the safety of vaccines so that they not only protect us from particularly diseases, but also protect us against side effects.

Foodservation – the New Cool

March 12, 2015

So the new cool is being efficient in the kitchen.  While I’m not particularly a fan of mandatory composting, the idea of being more wise with our food – before, during, and after eating – is overall a good thing.  Hopefully this is being passed on to kids, not just older folks!


March 10, 2015

I like to watch mixed martial arts (MMA).  If you’re not familiar with this phenomenon, it is essentially boxing on steroids.  Any combination of techniques (boxing, wrestling, karate, etc.) are permitted, meaning almost every part of the body becomes a weapon.  Elbows and knees deliver devastating blows that incapacitate or even knock an opponent unconscious.  Watching these men (women also fight one another) go at it is an adrenaline rush.  It is brutal and sometimes painful to watch, but it is also an amazing demonstration of the human body to both deliver and withstand attack.

These fighters do not utilize weapons.  They are weapons.  To characterize them as unarmed is a deadly misnomer.

Which is why I take issue with the trend of reporting on police altercations where the emphasis is placed on whether the person(s) involved had a weapon on their person at the time of the altercation.  Take, for example this recent story.  I’m not making any judgments about the comparative guilt or innocence of either the officer or the teen.  My only point is that the headline is designed to elicit a particular response – a response of outrage or indignation that lethal force was used against an unarmed person.  A person with a gun shoots a person without a gun (or knife, or whatever).  Without any further reading or investigation it seems excessive, it connotes a level of guilt just because of a disparity in weaponry.

I’m not a police officer nor have I ever been one.  I have known several over the span of my life, ranging from rookies to retired veterans of the force.  I have no doubt that abuse of privilege occurs, just as I have no doubt that many officers are honorable people seeking to perform their duties in a way respectful of the citizens they work with.

When confronted with someone who threatens physical force, there are far more factors involved with how the officer responds than whether or not the other person is holding a weapon in their hand or not.  Unfortunately, these factors are not able to be reliably assessed in the moment of conflict.  Is the person armed or not?  It can be hard to tell.  Is the person on drugs that might mean they are not going to be affected by a wound the way someone not on drugs might be?  Has the person received training in hand-to-hand combat?

I have no doubt that in a close quarters confrontation, the average MMA fighter could incapacitate the average police officer regardless of being unarmed.  Even an untrained person could land a lucky punch or kick, even against an experienced and trained opponent.  I’d much prefer to see our press reporting on the full range of issues in the situation, not just whether or not the suspect was unarmed.

Moral Education

March 9, 2015

Something to be aware of for those of you with school-aged children: they may very well be taught that there are no moral truths.

The essay above is a very excellent summary of the problem with dividing everything into facts and opinions, and how it affects not just our children but the people they will grow up to be.  I can attest to the reality that this is not a new phenomenon, and that many of my college students over the past 15 years have evidenced similar notions that there are no moral absolutes.  This isn’t just depressing.  It should be terrifying.