Archive for April, 2015

Redefining Rights

April 30, 2015

If you’re immigrating to the United States and taking your citizenship exam (however many years later you’re actually allowed to do it!), you’ll be pleased to learn that you are guaranteed the right to freedom of worship rather than freedom of religion in the United States.  We are guaranteed the “free exercise” of religion, not simply the right to privately gather for religious services.

Freedom of worship is a dangerous misnomer, because it isn’t worth nearly as much as freedom of religion.  What we’re guaranteed is freedom of religion, no matter how inconvenient that may be (and it has always, to one degree or another, been inconvenient for somebody.  That’s the point of the freedom).

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Wet Bar Wednesday – Hurricane

April 29, 2015

I was happily reunited with my beloved shaker on Sunday after I left it at my last bartending gig in March.  I’ve had it for years and appreciate the tight seal it keeps when shaking almost anything (the exception being pisco sours – I suspect that the egg whites being shaken somehow releases gas that push the seal apart, but I have no chemistry background to verify this and am too lazy to Google it).  I’ve made do with a smaller, cheaper shaker of late and it has been traumatizing.

My old shaker also has a variety of drinks etched on the side, and a rotating outer sleeve that allows me to align a particular drink name at the top, and have the ingredients and proportions revealed below.  So it was that I decided to make a hurricane, albeit slightly modified.

Hurricane

  • 1 oz white rum
  • 1 oz spiced rum
  • 1 Tbsp passion fruit syrup
  • 2 tsp lime juice

Not having passion fruit syrup on hand, I substituted some huckleberry liquor I hadn’t used in a while.  Overall it was a well balanced drink.  If you like rum, you’ll probably like this.  Enjoy!

What Is Preached

April 27, 2015

I’m not sure how I stumbled across this article, but I found it fascinating.  It is a collection of various African pastors’ perspectives on restitution as part of the Christian life.  I find it interesting because I’m not convinced that restitution – with the emphasis and demand placed on it by these men – truly is Biblical.  Secondarily I find it fascinating because it isn’t something that you hear too often in American Christian circles.  Finally, it’s interesting to me because of working with addicts in recovery and the fact that in 12 Step programs, Step Nine specifically has the person work towards restitution.

While each of the pastors in the article insist that restitution is a Biblical mandate and evidence of the Christian life, very few of them actually cite Biblical support for this.  The one passage that is quoted by a few is that of Zaccheus in Luke 19:1-10.  Zacchaeus is a tax collector, meaning that he paid the Roman government for the right to collect taxes in a certain area.  He was required to collect a certain amount to remit to Rome, but he was free to collect more than the required amount in order to pay himself.  Tax collectors were hated as collaborators with Rome and robbers of their own people.  When Jesus comes to Zacchaeus’ house, Zacchaeus has a change of heart, vowing to repay anyone he has defrauded four times what he cheated them out of, in addition with giving half of his belongings to the poor.

It’s a beautiful transformation.  It’s interesting that these pastors only talk about the restitution part, and not about giving half our wealth to the poor.  That seems like a rather curious division of emphasis, particularly when Luke nowhere tells us that Jesus demanded this of Zacchaeus.  Zacchaeus’ generous promise is a reflection of the change of his heart, not a matter of fulfilling some specific commandment of restitution.  Also, if you’re going to use this as your supporting passage, why preach restitution in a limited way?  Why not preach that restitution must be four-fold?  Probably because that is an excessive directive.  What it points to is the magnitude of Zacchaeus’ response to the Son of God, not a legalistic mandate for restitution.

Certainly I don’t hear restitution emphasized in American Christian circles.  Grace here seems to mainly emphasize the forgiveness of sins and the fresh start we receive in Christ – all true! – without ever mentioning an expectation of restitution.  I wonder if this is because of a major theological difference from African Christianity, or reflective of the defensive posture of American Christianity.  If you’re clawing and scrambling for members, you aren’t going to push them too hard for fear that they’ll leave.

Working with addicts I try to stress the nature of forgiveness as opposed to restitution.  Restitution can have the effect of putting us back in control of things.  If I’ve done something wrong to somebody and then make restitution to them, it can allow me to expect that they must forgive me.  It puts me in command of the nature of the relationship, emphasizing what I’ve done to fix it more than what I did to break it in the first place.

Forgiveness is a gift, now something that we merit.  Some things can’t be fixed, and that doesn’t allow me to place the blame back on the other person.  What is emphasized in the Zacchaeus account is not Zacchaeus, but Jesus, who announces that salvation has come to Zacchaeus’ house, meaning Jesus has come to his house and Zacchaeus has welcomed him and been changed in that encounter.  Zacchaeus was lost in his sinfulness, but now has repented, and recognizes that God has found him.

While I believe that restitution is important when possible, I don’t believe that it is Biblically-mandated via the Zacchaeus text.  Thoughts?

Reading Ramblings – May 3, 2015

April 26, 2015

Reading Ramblings

Date: Fifth Sunday of Easter – May 3, 2015

Texts: Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 150; 1 John 4:1-11; John 15:1-8

Context: We continue this Easter season to consider the impact of the resurrected Christ on his followers 2000 years ago and the implications for you and I today. We are empowered to live as followers of Christ by the love of Christ that is placed within us by God the Father. This love is not something that we can generate on our own, but rather an outflowing of our faith in Jesus.

Acts 8:26-40 – Once again the Book of Acts is referenced for another example of preaching the resurrected Jesus the Christ. The story begins with what Philip must have considered an unpleasant turn of events. Philip was having great success teaching in the city of Samaria, but is instructed to go to the middle of nowhere. Here, he meets a single person, a Jewish Ethiopian official. Philip instructs him in the faith and introduces the man (who may not have been present in Jerusalem for the events of Jesus’ death & resurrection) to the good news of Jesus. In an age of efficiency, where numbers are the determiners of faithfulness and success, this story of God the Holy Spirit’s specific attention to one man’s salvation is a stirring reminder of God’s care for each one of us.

Psalm 150 – It’s hard to add much commentary to this psalm! We are called upon to praise the Lord in every and all things, utilizing all our abilities and creativity in the process. The reason for our praise is God’s mighty deeds and the excellent greatness they display. The greatest of these mighty deeds is sending his Son to live and die and rise again in our place, promising to return and lead us into eternal life. While it is important to recount and recognize the personal works of God in our specific, individual lives (as the Ethiopian official in the previous reading surely did!), these are all secondary to God’s greatest gift to us in Jesus Christ.

1 John 4:1-11 – I’m becoming more and more convinced that this little letter is one of the most challenging sections in Scripture! John begins with a caution, to be wise and discerning about who and what we listen to. The litmus test is not the use of God’s name or even Jesus’ name, but the confession of the incarnation of the Son of God. This specificity should be the preliminary grounds for determining whether it is helpful to listen to someone. I would suggest it is not the only grounds, but it certainly the most preliminary grounds. There are already in the world spirits and forces who deny this, and that hasn’t changed in 2000 years. There are those who will fall under their influence and therefore be unable to hear what we have to say about Jesus the Christ.

John then transitions back to his ongoing theme of love, and the importance of loving one another. True love is impossible outside of the power of God because only in God do we learn what love actually means, and how best to express it. This admonition to love is important, for it should draw our attention to the fact that we are often not very good at it. We are very selective about who we love, even among our church family!

It sounds like a fairly straightforward command – love one another. And as such we want to dutifully set ourselves about doing it. We can make our resolutions and go out of worship ready to be more loving. But we are likely to be overwhelmed with our failure. With our inability and our unwillingness to love others as we are instructed. Anytime the Law becomes our focus – even the law of love – we can only be crushed by our inability to keep the Law. Our failure to love one another points us to the reality of our inability to love God as we should.

But John gives us hope as well. While we are not very good at loving, God is! The real measure of love is not to be found within us (obviously!), but in God’s loving sending of his Son to save us from our sin, from our un-loveable-ness and our un-loving-ness. So while yes, we ought to love one another, we will fail far more often than we succeed. We cannot keep our eyes fixed on us and on our accomplishments in this regard (or lack thereof). Rather, we must keep our eyes fixed on God the Father and God the Son, by the power of God the Holy Spirit. And in this way, we will find that we are more loving – little by little.

John 15:1-8 – Some of John’s themes are clarified here further, as we should expect. Jesus makes it clear that who and what we are is defined in relationship to himself. We can expect ourselves to be a certain way, can try to will ourselves to be less self-centered and more loving. But such efforts will be disappointing by any honest assessment. But when we rest in Jesus Christ, when we gain our identity in and through him, then these things can begin to be part of our lives. We cannot produce fruit apart from him. It is not ultimately our fruit, but rather his fruit manifest through us.

Verse 3 is important. We may wish to judge our faithfulness by our lives, and this is a dangerous mistake. Our faithfulness exists in our trust in Jesus the Christ as the Son of God incarnate, crucified, buried, resurrected, ascended, and coming again. This is what defines us as a child of God, not our fruit. We must keep our eyes firmly fixed on Christ in all things, rather than on ourselves. Otherwise we will be at best tempted to spiritual pride, and at worst to despair over our behavior.

We must abide in Jesus. A popular cult film is The Big Lebowski. The mantra of the main character, the Dude, is that “the Dude abide”. He simply is. Great events swirl around him, but he remains himself in the midst of all these things, remaining by and large unruffled by both the promise of greatness or the threat of death.

Ironically, this is a good image for the Christian life. We are to remain in Christ. The sense is very passive. It is not about us going out and doing great things for God, but rather remaining who we are and where we were grafted into him. Perhaps we were grafted and prepared for great things, in which case these things will come and we are to remain in him in the midst of them. Perhaps we were not grafted into him for great things. Then we are to remain in him in the ways intended for us, neither prone to jealousy nor ambitions beyond what He enables us to.

By the power of God the Holy Spirit you have been made part of God the Son, grafted into him and deriving your identity and strength from him. This is not in some mystical, Eastern sense by which we lose ourselves, but rather in such a way that discovering our true realities and identities is promised. We are not to obsess and focus over ourselves and our relative successes and failures as followers of Christ, but rather to focus on Christ. In doing so, in abiding in him, trusting in him and what we have done for us, our lives will be transformed, we will bear fruit, fruit that will last.

One-Sided Tolerance

April 25, 2015

It’s fascinating to watch in my lifetime the massive shift in culture in America.  It was fascinating to watch the dawning of the political correctness movement, which evolved into the crusade for tolerance, which picked up on the theme of anti-bullying.  While most people with a brain recognized that these things were being abused and misused, we also couldn’t argue with the fact that there was a nugget of truth in them.  Respect for other people is a worthwhile – dare I say Biblical –  thing.

So it’s equally fascinating to watch all of these things being discarded now, trojan horses safely inside the walled city.  There is no further use for them, no need to pretend any longer that these ruses were anything but that – ruses.  Ruses that lulled the sensibilities of otherwise sensible people, or more accurately beat those sensibilities into submission.  Ruses that made people afraid to stand up for what they believed in.  Ruses that, in particular, somehow convinced Christians and congregations that sharing their faith and articulating clearly and consistently their Biblical bases was unloving and unbecoming followers of Christ.

The Church may be the one place left in America where these ruses still hold force, where people are still bound and gagged by the idea that anyone might ever consider them unloving.  The rest of our culture has discarded those notion in favor of aggressive, violent pressing for their particular views of the world and humanity.  Tolerance is for fools.  Well of course it is.  Tolerance has always been a paltry facade, a terrible substitute for actual love for our neighbor.

Witness the presidential prophecies of Hilary Clinton.  Does it worry anyone else when someone who aspires to the highest office in our country actively insists that religious beliefs must “be changed”?  When not just the rule of law but the philosophy behind it is touted as normative to the exclusion of any disagreement?  How can someone of any religion in good conscience support a candidate who blatantly flaunts her insistence that religious liberty must be curtailed, that religious beliefs that disagree with a particular ideological agenda cannot be tolerated?

It’s time to realize that we’ve been had.  For decades, granted, but we’ve been had.  Witness the tolerance being demonstrated by Clinton – and plenty of others, to be sure.  Witness their willingness to disrespect and trample on the beliefs of others because they don’t agree with their own points of view.  It’s time to wake up, because that burning smell isn’t just the coffee burning, folks.  And while it may well be too late to save the city, we ought to at least be witness to the destruction.

An Open Ear

April 23, 2015

This is a great and insightful article.

While many ‘experts’ seek to guide congregations into services and messages that aren’t too challenging, that are broadly appealing but devoid of meaningful content, we would do well to listen to those we  claim to want to reach.  A congregation or pastor does nobody any good by dumbing down the message, but smoothing over the challenges of the faith or shrinking from both proclaiming the Gospel and acknowledging that there are many, many things we cannot know.

It doesn’t matter how friendly we are or how musically invigorating we might be, or even how involved we are in community activities and social justice.  If we don’t preach the Gospel in love, and if we don’t link Jesus Christ compellingly with the world today as we experience it, young people will continue to walk away.  Frankly, if we don’t do these things, old people should be walking away as well.

The Burden and Blessing of Sheepness

April 22, 2015

An acquaintance posted this on Facebook this morning and it caught my eye.  It pokes fun at the Biblical use of sheep for people in general and followers of God in particular.  After all, sheep aren’t terribly admirable creatures.  In the animal kingdom, there are many, many, many other animals I would aspire to be other than a sheep.

But that’s sort of the Biblical point.

The article criticizes the church (or more accurately, God) for portraying people as sheep, and thus conferring on them a designation of meekness and tolerance that allows people (pastors, particularly) to prey upon them.  It suggests that instead of sheep, we should encourage the people of God to consider themselves lions.

The irony here is rather sweet.  Don’t be a victim, be a perpetrator.  Don’t be weak, be strong.  Don’t be prey, be the predator.  That seems so problematic on so many levels I’m actually glad I’m sitting down.  Acknowledging the risk of abuse in any relationship, the solution is not to become the one that is likely going to be accused by somebody else of abuse.

The Biblical use of the sheep metaphor is precise.  Painfully so.  We have delusions of grandeur and aspirations of greatness fueled by a media-obsessed culture where you can become wealthy and influential by recording yourself having sex with someone else and sharing it with the world.  We are exhorted constantly to greatness because mediocrity stinks.  Children are led to believe they are geniuses and artists deserving of the world’s highest accolades just so they never feel bad about themselves, which in turn sets them up for a lifetime of bitter disappointment.  Everybody wants to be a lion.  Very few people are.

And the even deeper truth is that even the lions are sheep.

Every single one of us has somebody more powerful in our lives.  We may know them or we may not.  But every single one of us, at some point or another, sooner or later, is a sheep.  Our limited resources are exhausted.  Our limited intellects are at wits’ end.  Our limited cleverness is befuddled.  We find ourselves at the mercy of a bacteria, or a dictator, or an abusive pastor.  We have no other options, no other means at our disposal to deal with the situation or the person.  We suffer.  We hurt.  We bleed.  We die.

This is what sheep do.

The solution is not to become a lion, because even a lion is a sheep before death itself, or disease and infirmity, or against an unforeseen accident.  Every dictator is a sheep before death, or the haunting fear of betrayal or revolt.  And every single one of us will one day succumb to a predator of one sort or another.  How will we deal with that?  How do we deal with the abusive supervisor at work that thwarts our ambitions and steals our accomplishments?  How will we deal with the ungrateful child who discards our love and concern and abusively rebels against the things we hold most dear?  How will we deal with a spouse who is negligent of our needs?  How will we deal with a pastor who abuses the office entrusted to them by God, and to whom they must one day answer (Hebrews 13:17, or Ezekiel 34)?

At some point we have to face our helplessness, embrace the reality of our sheepness.  I won’t say that we have to like it – but we have to acknowledge it.  We are not God.  We are not even lions.  We are sheep, always in danger of being the victim of somebody stronger or smarter or more sinister.  And if we cannot overcome them, if we cannot transform ourselves into lions who disperse such adversaries, what can we do?  Here’s a link to a song I love by a great band – 10,000 Maniacs – that deals with this very theme.

What Scripture assures us in describing us as sheep is that there is someone who is mightier than the lion, the predator, the abuser.  But that person is not me.  That person is the Son of God who came into this world to save me.  From the lion within me.  From the lion that stalks around me.

We must trust in God just as sheep must trust the shepherd.  First and foremost in all things.  We can and must seek His strength and peace as we suffer.  Of course, to the best of our ability we work to avoid suffering.  We seek counseling with a spouse or a child.  We utilize whatever avenues we have to resolve conflict at work and church.  And it may be that the only option left to us is to leave that company, to find a new congregation.  But still the damage is done.  Still our sheepness has to be acknowledged.  Still our dependence on the God who created us and redeemed us has to settle into our hearts and minds.

So no, it’s not my job to transform sheep into lions.  It’s to remind sheep that they are sheep.  To remind lions that they are sheep.  To trust in my God and redeemer to hold me in his hands and deliver me from evil, either this day or eventually.  To trust that He will deal appropriately with those who abuse their power and position or my sheepness, because only He is capable of dealing with them.  I am not.  Not always, at least.

If Jesus is willing to be called the Lamb of God, how much more should I in obedience accept the reality of my sheepness?  To do so does not condone the misbehavior of those around or over me.  But to do so is a profound recognition of who I am before God as well as my neighbor, and a profound celebration of the God who has promised to make all things right.

Daniel & the Assumption of Risk

April 22, 2015

Vaccination is a big subject these days.  Australia is taking strong moves to penalize anyone who refuses to immunize.  While that’s unfortunate in my opinion, it’s also tied to state benefits in some measure.  If you want the benefits, you get immunized.  Period.  While I think this is harsh, there’s an argument to be made that when you expect the help of the State, you need to abide by the State’s rules.  The tricky part is at what level do you draw that line?  If I want a payout from the State, is that enough to demand compliance?  Is the fact that the State is protecting me from foreign invasion enough to demand compliance?  Tricky indeed.

Here in California, the Education Committee for our legislature just passed SB277, which would eliminate the parental right to determine whether or not their child is vaccinated.  The amendment specifies a list of ten specific immunizations which must be received, but also leaves it open to “any other disease deemed appropriate by the department”.   While the State Department of public health should get recommendations from a variety of sources, the bill does not require that the Department utilize those recommendations.

In other words, whatever the State Department of Public Health decides should be a mandatory vaccine, is one.  Period.

I trust that the intentions are good behind this measure.  Who doesn’t like the idea of saving lives and suffering?  There are two questions at play though – whether vaccines really do everything they claim to with none of the side effects or other issues they claim not to have, and then the question of whether the State can force people to do this, and whether the State has the sole determining factor of what vaccines are required.  While media portrayal of vaccinations is almost uniformly positive, there is plenty of suspicion, not to mention fascinating information, that contradict such glowing descriptions.  As I’ve stated before, I’m not opposed to vaccines in principle, but I have grave concerns about how they have proliferated in the past 50 years, and who makes what decisions about who has to have what vaccines.  There’s a whole lot of money at stake here, and that always makes me nervous.

All of this has been brought to the forefront by outbreaks earlier this year.  Outbreaks which, to my knowledge, didn’t result in deaths.  Outbreaks which appear to have subsided with minimal impact.  Yet the fear that these outbreaks provided fuel for is being used now to strip parents of the right to determine what gets put into their child’s body.  It conveys that power not to doctors or professionals (not that this would be any better, frankly), but rather to a governmental department with TOTAL control over what is required and what isn’t.

Anybody who questions vaccinations is routinely portrayed as an idiot.  Pop media has had a field day with this.  However, despite the smear campaign, questions persist, and rightly so I think.  Consider this short remix of a video that was very popular a year or so ago (caution, objectionable language).  But when we insist on crushing discussion and dismissing those who disagree as idiots, nobody is being helped.

Of course, insistence upon a prescribed program is hardly a new thing.  Governments have been forcing people to do various things that are claimed to be good for as long as people have been around.  Sometimes these are good and warranted.  Other times not.  But any time personal liberties are sacrificed for an alleged public good, there are dangerous elements afoot.

For some reason I thought about Daniel this morning.  Daniel was taken prisoner to Babylon, where he is to be prepared for royal service.  Part of such preparations is a prescribed health regimen.  This regimen included access to some of the best foods, foods comparable to what the king himself ate.  The idea being that what is good for the king is good for his advisers, and if the king wants good advisers he should ensure that they have access to the best treatment.  But Daniel disagrees.  As a Jew he is forbidden to eat certain things, and he requests that he be exempt from what is considered the best standard of care in Babylon.  Daniel is putting himself at risk – but he is also putting the man in charge of caring for him at risk.  If Daniel’s preferred regimen leaves him in worse shapes than his peers, the king will be angry with Daniel’s caretaker.  It’s a calculated risk, but one that works out.

There will always be popular opinions about what is best and right and healthy.  Sometimes they may be well-founded and other times not so much.  I hope that people who wish to have their children vaccinated will do so and be grateful for that option, a blessing of the age in which we live.  I just hope that the age in which we live will not be used as the rationale to dismiss debate and discussion and simply require blind conformity.

But I’m pretty sure I’m not going to get what I hope for.

Wet Bar Wednesday – Midori

April 22, 2015

In my continuing efforts to expand my drink repertoire while using rarely-accessed liquors in my bar, I decided the other night to look for drink recipes that utilize Midori.  Midori is a liquor that originated in Japan, but now is also manufactured elsewhere in the world.  It is distinguished by its bright, light-green hue, and its distinctive sweet melon taste.  Midori is a relatively new liquor, launched in 1978.  Because it is such a sweet liquor it is usually part of mixed drinks.  I opted for two different recipes.

Alligator

  • 1 part Midori
  • 2 parts Orange Juice
  • Lemon juice to taste

Probably named for the color of an alligator, this is a rather sweet drink.  I tempered it with 1/3 – 1/2 parts lemon juice in order to take the very sweet edge off.

Far East

  • 1 part Midori
  • 1 part Shochu
  • 1 part lemon juice

I happened to have an old bottle of shochu on hand, so I figured I’d be killing two birds with one stone.  Or killing myself with two extremely well-aged, opened bottles of liquor!  This drink has a brighter green hue to it than the alligator, since there’s nothing other than the lemon juice to temper the Midori’s green-ness.  The lemon juice does a very good job of dulling the sweetness level.  The lemon also softens the very melony flavor of the Midori, and visa versa, making for a drink that is a bit on the sour side but very bright on the tongue.

Overall, Midori is a liquor I haven’t used very much, but may play around with a bit more to look for good ways of utilizing it.  As always, suggestions are welcome!

Enjoy!

Movie Review – Silver Linings Playbook

April 21, 2015

My wife and I struggle to find movies to watch together.  We’re both overly sensitive to what we think the other might like to watch or not.  But we continue to struggle intermittently to find a happy medium between brain-gorging zombies and petticoats.  We opted for Silver Linings Playbook.

The acting in this film was very good.  Being old, this was my first exposure to Bradley Cooper, and he did a good job of channeling the intensity of a man trying very, very hard to retain a grip on reality.  We’d met Jennifer Lawrence already via the Hunger Games movies, and she demonstrated an equal intensity and vulnerability.  The supporting cast was impressive, if sometimes curiously out of place.  What was the point of Chris Tucker in this film?  Other than providing one of the film’s most memorable lines, I mean?

The movie revolves around two mentally unstable people and their interactions with one another.  The problem with having mental illness (whether clinically diagnosed as Cooper’s character is, or more implied as with Lawrence’s) is that mental illness is pretty serious stuff.  Yes, the people who suffer with it are sometimes very attractive and equally charming.  But the reality is that even when the Right One Comes Along, they don’t generally cure the mental illness.

Early on in the film both Cooper and Lawrence do an admirable job of portraying their respective struggles, their social maladjustment, their fear, their defensiveness, their unpredictability, their lack of ability and sometimes even willingness to control themselves and the problems that inevitably follow.  But by the middle of the film this begins to disappear.  Love is once again the great healer, smoothing over all the problems these two individuals deal with, without exacerbating each other’s or creating new ones between them.  The ending is ultimately hollow in an utterly predictable fashion.  This makes the movie emotionally satisfying, but only at the cost of integrity.

That being said, it was still enjoyable.  Requisite gratuitous nudity and profanity, so be forewarned.  The film is very funny as well – and rarely at the expense of the main characters.  Rather than making cheap jokes about their struggles, the movie does a great job of showing the ludicrousness that many normal or healthy people exhibit in their lives.  Is there anything more insane than a die-hard sports fanatic?  Probably not, and the film does a good job of capturing a bit of that particular phenomenon.  Family dynamics and quirks are also a source for laughs, as are friends.  The main characters are likable, even when their actions (past or present) are not.  You want them to succeed, to be happy.  And you’re glad that they are in a movie because then that hope can be fulfilled a whole lot easier and more quickly than it could be in real life.