Archive for October, 2015

Doing It Yourself

October 29, 2015

It’s neat to see a new crop of entrepreneurs who have become wildly rich reinvesting in their communities.  Maybe this is a little taste of what it was like to see a new library funded by Andrew Carnegie open a century and more ago.

There are alternatives to our continuing inability to fund our public schools adequately, or our inability to teach our children in public schools effectively, depending on which side of the issue you find yourself.  People with the means to effect meaningful and positive and lasting change are doing so again.  Or at least attempting to.  That independent spirit is refreshing in a day when so many seem to expect so much for so little.

Wet Bar Wednesday – Apple Sunset

October 28, 2015

It seems like a long time since I posted a drink recipe.  Developing a memorized go-to list of drinks has been really handy, as it’s easy to rotate between different kinds of drinks without the *exhausting* 30-seconds of research necessary to try a new one.  So yes, I’m lazy.

However, I did try a new one tonight, which turned out quite tasty and refreshing.

Apple Sunset

  • 1.5 oz Calvados (apple brandy)
  • 2 tsp creme de cassis
  • 2 tsp grenadine
  • 3.5 oz orange juice
  • cherry for garnish

The directions are officially to mix all the ingredients *except* the orange juice, pour into a glass over ice and then top up with orange juice.  I just mixed everything together and it was very tasty.  Enjoy!

Philosophical Quarterbacking

October 27, 2015

I’ve begun re-reading Bonhoeffer’s Life Together recently.  Having recently read several books on an actual Christian community (Taize), I wanted to revisit Life Together to see if my views on it have mellowed and become more charitable with the passing of time.  My initial comments can be found here and here.  These are comments articulated when memories of our own experiment in life together during seminary were comparatively fresh.  I also read the book shortly after my first parish experience ended, under less-than-ideal circumstances.

But taking a completely different tangent, the context of Bonhoeffer’s writings made this article on the ethical question of would you go back in time to kill Hitler before he came to power, or prevent his birth catch my eye.  It was interesting first of all to see the pretty significant split of responses to the question of whether someone would be willing to go back in time to bump off Hitler in his crib.  Considering the numbers that leap to mind when considering Hitler’s actions – 6 million Jews slaughtered – I figured more people would be jumping for the nearest time machine.  I’d like to think that the numbers reflect more considered thinking on the topic, but that’s just silly, most likely.

The article does a good job of laying out the argument as to why offing Hitler is not the relatively painless exchange it seems to be.  One dead baby vs. millions of dead people.  In light of yesterday’s topic, numerics make this look like a good swap, but reality is rarely that neat and tidy, even hypothetically.  There are far more elements at play than we can ever completely comprehend, and the frightening reality is that as terrible as this reality sometimes is, I believe that God is at work within it so that it is better than some of the possible other realities we might create for ourselves.

One of my favorite short stories is Ray Bradbury’s (of course) A Sound of Thunder.  It deals with the intricacies of fooling with the past even accidentally.  He reminds us that even accidentally assuming the power of God can lead to damning consequences.  Food for thought on an otherwise innocuous Tuesday.

Trolley Thoughts

October 26, 2015

A couple of weeks ago in Bible study, I had the opportunity to refer to the trolley problem as part of our discussion.  So it wasn’t without a chuckle or two that I found this article shortly after.

The trolley problem is a philosophical thinking exercise that examines how and why people make decisions.  It centers on whether you as a bystander would choose to allow a trolley to plow into a group of people, or to take an active role in diverting the trolley so that it only runs over one person.  Variations on the exercise adjust how direct your role really is – do you throw a switch to divert the trolley or actually push someone into the trolleys path to derail it?

It came up in Bible study because I was talking about how Christians are not utilitarians.  Our thinking should not be guided by the general maxim of maximum good/minimum harm.  Historically these maxims have led to some pretty brutal actions, as lives are denigrated for the sake of progress or the good of society or any number of other rosy-sounding goals.  Anything that allows us to treat human lives as units or numbers to be weighed on a scale for whatever purpose needs to be treated with deep suspicion.

But utilitarian thinking is prevalent in our culture, and Christians are not exempt from this.  This article is good at highlighting some of the shortcomings of the trolley problem while acknowledging that it has had a lot of influence on how people think.  I found it particularly interesting that this problem is being given new-life in terms of programming automated cars.  How do you program a car to respond in a situation where a collision is inevitable?  How does the car choose what actions to take?  I suspect that generally it will be programmed top take the actions calculated to result in the fewest injuries or deaths.  That sounds like a simple thing, but is it?

What if we push the example to more detail – could you choose between killing a child or an elderly person?  A business executive versus a transient?  While utilitarian thinking in terms of raw numbers may be unavoidable (we routinely claim that dropping the A-bomb on Japan saved countless American – and Japanese – lives), we have to recognize that pretty quickly the same logic can be used to elevate the worth of some lives at the expense of others.

As Christians we recognize that we live in an imperfect world guided by the perfect, revealed moral and ethical law of God.  While the law is perfect, our condition is not and we will sometimes be faced with choosing to the best of our ability the lesser of two evils.  Lie to the Nazi officials at the front door to protect the Jews we are hiding in our basement, or tell the truth knowing it will result in the arrest of the people in the basement and likely their death?  Christians want desperately to believe that we can keep our hands clean, that we can avoid breaking God’s law but the very nature of the world we live in and our fractured selves – simultaneously saints and sinners – means that none of us have clean hands, and there will be times when we are left to deal with the wracking guilt of wanting to obey God’s law and not being given the option to.

We will want to justify ourselves in that situation, to indicate that it wasn’t wrong to lie, or that we aren’t actively participating in the deaths of others at the expense of our own consciences.  We will want to demand that God validate our choices and actions so that we can escape the guilt of failure and disobedience.  But this is an illusion.  An illusion that leaves us – oddly enough – with the only comfort we can truly trust in this world.  We go to God and confess our sinfulness, our brokenness, and rest in the forgiveness assured to us by the cross of Christ and the empty tomb.

Confession and absolution are light things when we don’t examine our consciences fully, or when we feel as though we’ve done a pretty good job for the day or the week.  But when we know we have failed, when we actively failed – even though we wanted to do good – then confession and absolution are revealed as what they are, gifts of God to his fallen and broken creation.  Means of sustaining ourselves and getting out of bed each morning without the crushing weight of our collective guilt immediately blotting us out of existence.

A clean conscience is a blessing.  A forgiven conscience is far better and more assuring.  If I say I have no sin, I am probably deceiving myself, whether I choose in the moment to allow the trolley to continue towards the crowd or take active steps to direct it towards a less devastating fate.

Reading Ramblings – All Saints Day 2015

October 25, 2015

Reading Ramblings

Date: All Saints Sunday – November 1, 2015

Texts: Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 149; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12

Context: All Saints Day has been honored since roughly the fourth century as a day of remembrance for all those who have died for their faith. It grows out of the earlier tradition of the Church to honor individual martyrs on the specific dates of their death. However at the beginning of the 4th century under the persecutions of Emperor Diocletian, there were so many Christians martyred that it became unfeasible to commemorate them all specifically. It is in the early 8th century that Pope Gregory III indicated a day of observance for not just martyrs and saints but all those who have died in the faith. In many congregations (such as ours) it is traditional to read off a list of all those who have died in the past year, as well as a time to remember those special to us who precede us in the faith.

Revelation 7:9-17 – I like to refer to this as the Family Portrait. St. John is given a glimpse of all those in faith in Christ, all those who will be gathered around the throne in praise of their Creator God the Father, their Redeemer God the Son, and their Sanctifier God the Holy Spirit. And unlike many family portraits here on earth, this one is complete. No one is missing or forgotten. Which means somewhere in that portrait might be St. John himself (how’s that for confusing?!). You and I as well, through faith in Jesus Christ, are glimpsed by St. John and captured here, thousands of years before our birth, in the Family Portrait of God. It is the assurance that while the world may discard us, while people may wander and die in the throes of addiction, or disappear in the violence of drug cartels and dictators, nobody is forgotten by God. We hold to our faith not as protection from the evils of the world, but in the promise that regardless of what those evils may do to us, God has the final word, and it is a word of hope and promise and joy.

Psalm 149 – The call to sing a new song to the Lord may sound simple, but for people who like habit and routine and tradition, a new song can be a daunting (or even inappropriate!) thing. Yet the truth remains is that this is what we look forward to – gathering around the throne of God as his redeemed and adopted children. From all over the world and throughout human history what a gathering that will be! It is only reasonable that we will be learning new songs as we join in the songs of those who lived long before (or long after) us, or who speak different languages or grew up with different instruments and rhythms. We look forward to that eternal harmony, wherein new songs will be a sharing of our beloved favorites and our learning of the beloved favorites of others.

The other half of the song acknowledges that while God’s people will be celebrating, this end of times we look forward to means defeat for those who refuse God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Those who railed against God and sought their own glory and domination will find themselves defeated utterly and completely at last. All wrongs will be made right, and those who steadfastly refused to repent of their sins and accept the amnesty of God will receive their due punishment – banishment from the glory and joy of God and his people forever.

1 John 3:1-3 – We can celebrate with those who have died in the faith, knowing that they live to celebrate with us. We raise our songs of praise to God together – separated by the veil of death but no less alive. We have this confidence not because we have earned it or deserve it but solely through the good grace and mercy of God the Father, who lavishes love on his rebellious creatures and offers them forgiveness and amnesty forever. This is truly our identity, one that is easy for us to lose sight of because of our awareness of our continuing sin, and one that the world is likely not to see in us because it does not correspond to earthly standards of glory.

We know what we are, even though we cannot perceive how it will be when that identity is fully revealed, untarnished by our own sin and the sin of creation around us. Our hope is that just as our Lord was raised bodily from the dead, so too shall we, and this hope and promise leads us each day to commit ourselves to God’s love and seek to live more and more today the way we will one day live effortlessly in eternity.

Matthew 5:1-12 – This is perhaps the best known of Jesus’ teachings, full of sayings that contradict the way we tend to think about things. We tend to think that those who are highly spiritual and happy and confident, those who are blessed to live in comfort and peace are those whom the gods have favored, their temporal blessings a sign of greater, more lasting blessings. Yet Jesus insists that appearances are not everything, and many that the world views as cursed or unfortunate will be seen – in God’s timing – to be the blessed ones.

Likewise, those who are often pushed aside by the more aggressive and confident in the world, – the nice guys who finish last – they have much to look forward to as well. One day it will be seen that mercy is not a foolish indulgence, that purity is not something to be mocked, that seeking peace is not a sign of weakness, and that those who are persecuted – even unto death – are never forgotten by their God.

Finally, persecution for following Christ is a sign of faithfulness. It is not a sign of dishonor, but rather a badge of honor. It is not something that should take us by surprise but something we should expect because we have an enemy who, though defeated, is still very much at work in this world, lashing out against the children of God because he cannot strike at God himself. As such, our response to persecution for our faith is to rejoice. Not for the sake of our suffering, but for the surety of our victory over it and through it. The ranks of persecuted Christians in the world continues to grow every day, and it is an honor to be numbered among them. This is not a call to seek out suffering and persecution, but simply the assurance that if and when it comes, we should be ready to praise God rather than curse him for abandoning us.

This is very much a big picture sort of teaching. As such, followers of Christ will find that they do not appreciate these characteristics very much in the here and now. Those who suffer, who endure loss, who renounce worldly expectations of vengeance – their road is not easy or enviable. It is natural for Christians to seek to avoid these conditions. But we should not be surprised when we find ourselves in them. As such, this passage also calls us to stand with our brothers and sisters who suffer, to seek to bear their burdens with them, and to witness to them the faithfulness of God the Father and the lavishness of his love, even though they may be called to suffer and die in this moment.

This passage would be a good one for the Western Church to remember as its influence and numbers wane. We should not experience this in bitterness or in lashing out against those who turn against us. Rather, we must keep our eyes fixed on our heavenly Father, on the promises He has made to us, and on the way his Son taught us, when need be, to suffer and die, trusting not in the transient comforts of the world or youth or the other idols set before us, but in the lavishness of God which will be shown to outshine all of these things eternally.


October 23, 2015

Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.  Proverbs 22:6

For some parents and grandparents, this is a hope.  The hope is that their offspring who have left the church will one day return to the church, to something more substantial than an ill-defined and unassuming spirituality.

It may well be that this is a good hope, or at least a reasonable one.  It isn’t uncommon for me to talk with people who had some form of contact with the Church in the past.  Maybe it was a baptism or more extensive involvement.  But since then they’ve quit coming to church.  They may claim to still be religious or even Christian, but they’ve found other means they think satisfy and fulfill that identity.

Until something happens in life.  Until they have their own child or grandchild.  Then the old things tend to return.  I met with a young mother who wants to baptize her child.  She doesn’t go to church regularly, yet still has some instinctual understanding that this is what you do.  Of course my hope is that having touched base with a church for this event, she will be led to return to church (mine or another) more regularly.  But at the end of the day I am forced to leave the situation in God’s hands.  He may use me for this small piece of the puzzle, but I may never see any of the other pieces coming together.

I pray for wisdom to respond properly, and for the chance to reinforce the Good News of a loving God in the midst of a broken, sinful, and rebellious creation.  A God who works through simple things and simple means – Word, water, wine, wafers – to communicate his invaluable love and grace and forgiveness accomplished through a simple death and an extraordinary resurrection.  I pray that in this moment of crossing paths again, the Holy Spirit will continue to work in her heart and the heart of her daughter to draw them closer to the fellowship that can teach them and love them and nurture them until it’s time for them to join their Maker.

I want control but I don’t have it.  God grant me the wisdom and grace to trust your promises, always.

The Power of Spin

October 22, 2015

There are events, and then there is history.

Events are what they are.  History is the interpretation of those events – first and foremost as worthy of note in the first place.  We might not question that an event occurred, but the difficulty lies in determining who describes it accurately and why.

Two different issues caught my attention in browsing the news today.  The first is a speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier this week.  Our local paper reported on his controversial linking of a Palestinian cleric during World War II with Hitler’s Final Solution to eradicate the Jews rather than just expel them from German territory.  More accurately, the local news story (which might have been a reprint from Associated Press or elsewhere) reported on the response to Netanyahu’s claim.  No attempt was made to address the accusation itself and whether there might be any merit to it.  The only thing of interest was how various groups – Israeli, Palestinian, German, Facebook – responded to his comments.

The Washington Post provided a much healthier analysis of the allegation and whether or not it was a reasonable one to make.  They acknowledge that a meeting between Adolf Hitler and Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Islamic leader in Jerusalem at the time and an outspoken opponent of the Zionist movement to create a new Israeli state.  A recent book is cited as the likely source for Netanyahu’s claim, but the article goes on to argue against such an interpretation of the event.  Apparently no documentation or notes of the meeting exist or have been discovered, so what happened there remains historical speculation.  But it’s interesting how much some people want to discredit Netanyahu’s assertion.  Are there reasons to suspect things aren’t as simple as Netanyahu states?  Certainly.  But questions will likely always remain.

The second article has to do with the Hungarian journalist who was reviled around the world for tripping a Syrian refugee as he carried his young son.  This journalist is now suing both the man she tripped and Facebook.  She claims the man changed his story to the police, which I assume means he accused her of things she didn’t do, or that at least weren’t verified on camera.  She’s suing Facebook for not removing threatening content directed at her.

Her husband believes that she is innocent.  She acknowledges tripping the man but claims she is the victim in the whole situation.  Film exists that clearly shows her doing what she is accused of, yet she feels she can somehow vindicate herself and demonstrate her innocence in the court of public opinion, as well as in an actual courtroom.

Even events on video are subject to a variety of interpretations.  In some cases, interpretations can be very convoluted and complex, depending on the presuppositions or needs of the interpreters.  Christianity deals with this in the primary historical event of Jesus’ resurrection.  The assertion that Jesus rose from the dead bodily after three days in the tomb is one that causes a lot of people a lot of difficulty, and with good reason.  Resurrections are pretty rare, if not otherwise almost unprecedented.  The inability to verify and validate the disciples eye-witness accounts also leaves many people skeptical.

The alternative is to determine a separate understanding of the event.  The event is defined as Jesus’ body no longer in the tomb, and an alternative explanation for that reality is sought.  Some skeptics might even doubt the empty tomb, but the burden of proof against that event itself seems almost insurmountable.  Clearly *something* happened wherein Jesus’ body was expected to lie dead in a tomb, and this expectation was not met.

Plenty of other explanations have been offered, but as with the reporter’s attempt to vindicate her actions, they suffer from a great deal of hoops in need of jumping through.  The resurrection is the simplest explanation, albeit one that has become counter-intuitive when our philosophical premise is that miracles – and particularly resurrections – are impossible.  Were this not the prevailing cultural assumption these days, if instead the assumption was – as it has been throughout almost all of human history except for the last century – that there is some form of divinity beyond us, then the resurrection would not be nearly as problematic as some people find it today.

We can attempt to spin history, but events are what they are.  Who are we going to believe, and just as importantly, why are we going to believe them, are the critical questions each one of us must answer for ourselves, whether the topic is a government e-mail server or a reporter’s crass treatment of another human being, or speculation on the content of a meeting 70 years ago, or reports of a resurrection 2000 years ago.  Ask yourself the who/what question in terms of what you believe, but don’t neglect to answer the why question as well.  Doing so goes a long way towards avoiding spin, or promulgating it.

Finally, in Texas…

October 22, 2015

…somebody is doing more than just posturing about allegations that Planned Parenthood has been less than honest in their business practice.

The Inspector General’s office of Texas subpoenaed records from three different Planned Parenthood facilities to investigate allegations of Medicaid fraud.  It will be interesting to see what turns out from this, both short term in Texas and for our nation.


October 21, 2015

For whatever reason, I’m routinely asked about anger and whether it is sinful or not.  I suspect this question comes up often because it is something most of us struggle with.  Most of us have tempers.  Some are quick and hot, others are slow and steady.  But most of us can recall blowing our top or getting angry at one point or another.

The assumption by most is that anger is wrong and sinful.  The way I try to answer is that yes, by and large, I think that anger is most often – the majority of the time – wrong and sinful.  Or more accurately, almost all the time, anger becomes wrong and sinful.  We move very quickly from being angry at an injustice or an evil being perpetrated, to blatantly sinful thoughts, feelings, and conclusions.  We move from anger to envisioning justice or vengeance or recompense.  It’s one thing to be angry that Christians are being murdered by Muslims around the world, and another thing to delight in visions of what ought to happen to those who perpetrate these heinous deeds.  It’s one thing to be angry at the human greed that allows leaders to live in luxury while their subjects starve to death.  It’s another thing to imagine the ways we think those leaders ought to be treated or punished for their greed.

So I try to allow for the reality of anger and an appropriateness to it.  We can and should be angry at sin – whether within ourselves or others.  However we have to realize that as sinful human beings, this appropriate response very quickly, perhaps immediately, leads us into sin.  We are inherently sinful and in the power of anger Satan is quickly there (as with any other emotion!) to sinful ends.

So, anger is not in and of itself wrong, but we are generally not able to experience it without sinning.  We must be careful.  If you’d like someone far smarter to weigh in on the topic, here is a great Biblical overview of anger by a seminary professor.  It’s a little long, but it’s pretty easy to follow.  Enjoy!

Your Tax Dollars, Still at Work

October 20, 2015

A small peek into the world of Federally-mandated healthcare.  I wouldn’t think that too many people would be surprised by the author’s experiences.  At least I hope there aren’t too many.

But this article begs the larger question of who is in charge of their healthcare – doctors and the healthcare system, or themselves?  And what is the goal of healthcare particularly in the case of pregnancy?  A pregnancy is not an illness or disease or any other sort of medical condition.  It’s simply a condition, one which we are designed to move through more or less, and in most situations, without a lot of tinkering from the outside.  When situations warrant or necessitate medical assistance in pregnancy it’s a Godsend to have it available, but for healthy, normal pregnancies such medical assistance is by and large superfluous at best, wasteful at worst.

Sounds an awful lot like some other Federal activities, come to think of it.