Archive for January, 2016

Reading Ramblings – February 7, 2016

January 31, 2016

Reading Ramblings

Date: The Transfiguration of Our Lord – February 7, 2016

Texts: Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 99; Hebrews 3:1-6; Luke 9:28-36

Context: The Armenian Church observes Transfiguration Sunday on August 6. Their observance (if not the date) goes back to at least the 7th century, where Bishop Gregory Arsharuni credits the observance to St. Gregory the Illuminator in the early 4th century. The Western Church doesn’t adopt the observance formally until the 10th century.

Christmas emphasized Jesus’ humanity, Epiphany emphasized his divinity, and the Feast of the Transfiguration brings these two realities together in a single moment. We face the mystery of God made man, divinity encapsulated in humanity, humanity brought into divinity. As with the other great mysteries of the faith, the dual-nature of Jesus is something it is difficult to talk about very long without straying into heresey of one form or another. Yet on the Mount of Transfiguration Jesus grants his inner circle a glimpse at these two realities, and they convey this experience to you and I. What we cannot explain we trust. We need to trust these twin realities – Jesus is both fully human and fully divine – as we journey with him for the last time to Jerusalem, as we watch him offer himself to death and burial and resurrection. Those events occur within the context of the Transfiguration; it is the two natures of Christ that ensure that his death on our behalf is real, and his resurrection truly can offer us a glimpse and promise of life everlasting.

Deuteronomy 34:1-12 – Mountains are important places in Scripture, frequently the site of significant encounters between God and man. Abraham is saved from sacrificing Isaac on a mountain. Moses meets with God to receive the covenant on Mt. Sinai. And now, at the end of Moses’ life, he shares one more mountaintop encounter with God, by which he is miraculously able to perceive all of the promised land. Here God reveals his promise to Moses – the land that his people will enter. The land remains – the promise remains – for the people to receive, but Moses’ work is finished.

Psalm 99 – This psalm begins with the proclamation, the assertion that the Lord reigns, the Lord functions as a heavenly king, and the psalm explains the ramifications of this. The first three verses describe the power of God – angels are his throne, He is greatly exalted over Zion, the heavenly city, and all people should give praise to the awesome power of God, culminating in the declaration of holiness. But it isn’t simply his power that should be cause for praise. His attributes are extolled in verse 4, leading to another call to praise in verse 5 and another assertion of holiness. Verses 6-8 discuss some of the famous figures of the Old Testament and their relationship to God. Moses and Aaron serving as priests, and Samuel as the great prophet who anoints first Saul and then David as king. They are lifted up as models of faithfulness, and God is praised for his responsiveness to them. He forgave them but also judged them fairly, hearkening back to verse 4. Praise is once again enjoined in verse 9, where the figure of the mountain – a symbol for the presence of the Lord – is invoked.

Hebrews 3:1-6 – Paul’s introductory words set the stage for the section of verses to follow, verses which elevate Jesus above Moses. Jesus is both apostle and High Priest, denoting Jesus’ twin roles – God the Father’s representative to mankind, and mankind’s representative to God the Father. Moses functioned in both roles as well, but only as a servant. But Jesus is more than just a servant, He is the very Son of God, the perfect and final emissary of God the Father to creation, and more than this, our great advocate before God the Father. Moses served in the house, but Jesus is Lord over the house.

As such, Jesus has received the greater glory – as is fitting! Moses died and was accorded the honor of nobody knowing where his grave is. Jesus dies but is raised to life again before ascending visibly to heaven. As God’s Old Testament people were faithful as a household in obedience to the Mosaic covenant, so we in Christ as the new household are faithful when we hold fast in faith to the promise of Christ – that we too shall live again.

Luke 9:28-36 – Jesus reveals his glory to Peter, James, and John. They are nearly asleep, yet when they see his glory they are awake. Peter tries to find something meaningful to say but God the Father interrupts him. The disciples have not understood Jesus, they have been asleep to his reality, but when they see him in their glory, they are suddenly awakened, aware of his power and glory and majesty. Peter would be at home in our age of status updates and tweets and book deals and podcasts. We constantly try to fill the air and the ears around us with our voice, with our thoughts, asserting our intelligence or worthiness. But the Word of God cuts through all of our voices. Nothing we say matters. Nothing we do matters. Our ideas are ultimately pale and worthless. What matters is the Son of God who comes into creation on our behalf to suffer and die to reconcile us to God the Father. Nothing can matter more to God the Father than this – the beauty and glory and worthiness of his Son.

God the Father loves us – He created us! We respond to his gifts in prayer and praise and this is appropriate but nothing is more pleasing to him than his obedient Son who restores proper relationship between God the Father and creation. Peter doesn’t need to say anything – there’s nothing to say. What Peter really needs is to listen to the Son. To fix all of his being and attention on the Son. To what He says and to what He does. Jesus has been chosen for this task. The Son of God has been appointed from eternity for it and the moment of fulfilment is at hand! What a lesson for you and I when we seek to offer our apologies and our explanations and our justifications to our God. Instead, we should fix our hope and our attention on Christ, trusting that He has said and done everything necessary, and there is nothing left for us to add.

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,

And with fear and trembling stand.

Ponder nothing earthly minded

For with blessing in his hand

Christ our God to earth descending,

Comes our homage to demand!

Minding Your Words

January 30, 2016

I feel bad for Sir Alec Guinness.  There’s the dead thing to start with, but that isn’t necessarily all that bad a deal (he and his wife became Catholics in the 1950’s).  It isn’t just that despite an impressive body of work and a lengthy and highly successful film career, he’s remembered these days primarily for a role he detested – Obi-wan Kenobi.  Well, it is sort of that – and more specifically the fact that he continues to be dragged into the franchise even though he’s dead.

Guinness’ voice appears in one of the scenes of the new Star Wars installment, The Force Awakens.  He isn’t credited for it on IMDB, but fans certainly recognized his voice uttering the protagonist’s name, Rey.  This was accomplished – considerably post mortem – by taking Guinness’ line from the first film, A New Hope, “Don’t be afraid”, and cutting the af and the d off the beginning and end of afraid.  Impressive, and of course it sets the hard-core Star Wars fans all a-twitter, and I’ll admit that there’s an element of coolness to it.  If Guinness hadn’t convinced George Lucas to kill off Obi-wan in the first movie specifically to avoid being in further installments, it would be even cooler.  He ended up being in the next two films despite being dead, so I suppose the precedent for this most recent vocal appearance is well-established.

Beyond the personal indignities, though, I’ve often thought how our ability to manipulate recorded data, whether audio or video, leads us into a murky and potentially dangerous time.  Someone with some relatively simple equipment and enough patience and, of course, a healthy compilation of recorded work, could literally make someone else say literally anything.  Snip, clip, paste, rearrange, and something that I never, ever, ever said is suddenly there in an audio clip for the world to marvel- or recoil – at.

Call me paranoid, but what can be done for entertainment purposes could certainly be done towards less noble ends.  Want to convict someone of threatening to kill somebody?  Want to damage the credibility of someone who holds a counter-cultural point of view?  Want to embroil someone in a legal fiasco that could ruin them financially?  All the potential is there in what we’ve already said.

My congregational leadership has asked for years if we can post my sermons online, and for years I’ve refused.  Firstly, we don’t have the ability to provide quality material – both in terms of what I’ve said and the recording mechanisms.  We don’t have anyone with a gift for sound or video (thank God!) editing.  Putting up poor quality audio clips of a poor sermon to begin with blesses nobody, I argue.  I’m not opposed to the idea, but part of me does worry for precisely this reason.  When I provide someone with a recording of my voice saying one thing, I have no control over what someone else might use that recording – along with other recordings of me – to make me say.

Food for thought in our digital age of data manipulation.  Fortunately Sir Alec isn’t around now to lament this manipulation of his legacy, and I trust he’s too busy where he is to care.  But for the rest of us, it might be wise to remember that we can’t necessarily trust everything that we see and hear anymore.  The skills to create a massive battle in space and to reconstruct the voices of the dead to speak again are among us, not terribly complex, and require frighteningly little equipment.

Book Review: The Didache

January 29, 2016

The Didache

So I want to begin reading the Church Fathers, the earliest Christian writers that we have material from.  I’ve had this little book for years – I think I bought it at the bookstore at Seminary, but I haven’t actually read through it.  That’s kind of depressing based on how short it is!

The Didache is a manual of Christian instruction for those new to the faith.  Some people want to attribute it to the Apostles, but we have no way of confidently doing this and the Church has always treated it separately.  It’s very short – shorter than the Gospel of Mark if you want a comparison.

If I had to cite one thing that really struck me in reading it, it would be in the second second section, where it outlines some very specific rules of behavior.  Some of these overlap with the Ten Commandments and some don’t.  The ones that struck me are these:

  • 2:2 you will not murder offspring by means of abortion;
  •        and you will not kill him(/her) having been born

I understand the whole issue of male/female relationships and rights and whatnot, but I continue to not understand those who profess to be Christian and yet believe that murdering offspring – whether unborn or already born – is acceptable.  The earliest Church made it clear (because in Roman culture such practices weren’t necessarily forbidden) that killing your kids in or out of the womb is not permissible.  How have we as Christians lost sight of this?

I recommend this as an inexpensive copy of The Didache, and not necessarily for the commentary on it the author provides.  It’s a brief and fascinating glimpse into what the early Church thought was important to convey to people about how Christians should live.


Book Review (2): Life Together

January 29, 2016

Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I originally reviewed this book almost six years ago in two parts, here and here.  It was much closer to an experiment in Christian community that was very painful for my wife and I.  I wanted to give the book another chance, now nearly 12 years distanced from that communal experience, to see if I could better appreciate what so many others have found in this book.

I don’t have as many objections as I did a few years back.  I’m much more comfortable with the idea that we as individuals can’t change other people (regardless of how much we – or they – would like to), only God can.  While I originally felt that he somewhat contradicted himself between his opening chapter and the remainder of the book, I feel less that way now.  Much of what he says is truly profound, and this may be a book that I reread regularly because of that.  It has a depth of experience and faith that is admirable and troubling, and I like that combination.

So my apologies to Dr. Bonhoeffer, and I look forward to continuing to learn and grow through your words.

More Sensibility

January 28, 2016

Another example of a sensible response to the massive migration of people out of the Middle East and towards the West.  Refusing (thus far) to bow to public pressure to offload migrants and refugees already in Europe, Great Britain has opted to assist children as yet in Syria who have been orphaned by the war in one way or another.  This makes a lot of sense to me as it seeks to address a real need while also relieving pressures and stresses at the source – in Syria.


Book Review: Your New Money Mindset

January 28, 2016

Your New Money Mindset: Create a Healthy Relationship With Money

Brad Hewitt & James Moline, Tyndale House Publishers


I don’t read very many books on money.  By and large, there aren’t too many secrets (at least in my opinion) on dealing with your money unless you have a ton of it to begin with.  However these were being given away by our local Thrivent chapter a few months ago and our congregational president passed on a copy to me.

The premise of the book is simple – we need to have grateful and generous hearts in order to shift our relationship with money from always wanting and needing more of it for personal gratification, and to be a blessing to others.  It’s not a complicated mindset, and sounds vaguely Biblical so it ought to be a good sell.  There is an online survey that you take as part of reading the book, and the book is really just an explication of the various survey questions and exhortation to not be so consumeristic and self-centered.

The sad thing is that Christians need to be reminded of this.  We need to be reminded that life does not consist of buying and selling, but rather of contentment in Christ expressed as love for God and love for neighbor.  If we’re always worried about the next and the biggest and the  better, we are likely being exploited for the benefit of others and this hardly counts as love for either God or neighbor.

All well and good.

However, what I find painfully ironic, is that one of the co-authors is the CEO of Thrivent financial, formerly a fraternal organization specifically providing financial services and investments to Lutherans.  However 2-3 years ago the company called for a member vote on whether to expand their services beyond the Lutheran fold, in order to provide bigger and better services to a broader range of people.  I voted against this, incidentally, but the measure carried.  What has resulted has been generally less than pleasing as Lutheran stake-holders.  The company was embroiled in some rather unsightly revelations about funding of pro-abortion non-profit organizations,  which ultimately resulted in funds being denied to both pro-life and pro-abortion organizations, to the deep anger of many Thrivent members.

In other words, Thrivent as an organization (and I’m not sure if this happened under Hewitt’s watch or not) did exactly what Hewitt advises individual Christians not to do in this book – it succumbed to the desire to get bigger for the sake of being bigger.  No mention was made of financial difficulties pushing for the expansion of Thrivent services, it was just an opportunity to get bigger, and isn’t bigger always better?

No, it isn’t.  I argued that then.  Hewitt argues it now in his book while conveniently ignoring the corporate extension of that same philosophy.  I find that problematic.

The other thing I find problematic is that the book itself blithely touts certain societal expectations and norms that have huge financial impacts on families for decades.  Namely, Hewitt never questions the wisdom of parents being saddled with the cost of their children’s college educations, or with kids taking out massive loans to attend good schools.  In fact, more than once in the book graduating from a good school is cited as evidence of your reliability of judgment.

If there’s an area of personal finances that probably deserves some long, hard looks and some counter-cultural advice from Christian financial folks, college would seem to be at the top of the list.  But it isn’t here.  I’m sure it can be reasonably argued that the book aims more at heart issues than practical ones, but I still think they missed an opportunity to provide some really good, practical advice in favor of fairly generic Biblical citations.

Wet Bar Wednesday – Marlon Brando’s Pueblo Flip

January 27, 2016

When you buy a cocktail recipe book, there’s a certain level of arbitrariness to what you’ll find there.  Sure, there are the standby drinks, the well-known and well-established icons of the bartending world.  But mixed in there as well are drinks that may or may not be well-known (or known at all) beyond the limited range of the author/editor/creator.

So it was that I stumbled upon the recipe for the Marlon Brando’s Pueblo Flip in the largest of my drink compendiums.  It seemed like a curious name for a drink, and Google certainly knows nothing of this name.  But the drink is remarkably tasty all the same.  Marlon Brando may not have invented this, but it seems worthy of his name.

A flip is a drink that includes an egg in some way – oftentimes just the white or just the yolk.  The white is used to create a frothy, sustainable head on the drink, while the yolk provides a smoother and thicker consistency to a drink.  I’ve made this drink twice now and enjoyed it both times – hopefully you will as well!

Marlon Brando’s Pueblo Flip

  • 1 oz tequila (I prefer anejo or reposado, but if you like the bite, plata is fine)
  • 1 tsp creme de cacao
  • 1 tsp dark rum
  • heaping 1/2 Tbsp of vanilla flavored sugar
  • 1 egg yolk

Mix all the ingredients together well and pour over ice into a glass.   You’ll want to really mix this to ensure that the egg yolk and the sugar dissipate evenly in the drink.  Even still, you might end up with some granules of sugar at the bottom of your glass or mixer, which is fine.  Just don’t try to mix it in the glass with the ice already – it will not go so well.

I don’t stock fancy sugar so I added raw sugar with maybe 1/4 tsp or less of vanilla extract.  If you want to be fancier and make the mixing easier, make up some vanilla simple syrup and use that.

The drink is sweet and creamy, with the rum and tequila providing a pleasant punch offset by the creme de cacao and the egg yolk.  Enjoy!



“Open Wide and Say if You’re Depressed”

January 26, 2016

You might be used to sticking your tongue out for your primary care physician, but there are those who think you ought to be exposing a lot more than your tonsils.

The US Preventative Services Task Force (USPSTF) has issued a low-level recommendation that every single adult in the United States should be screened by their primary care physician for depression.  If you’re over 18 according to this group, you should take some surveys and questionnaires to determine if you might have depression and need further surveys and questionnaires and possibly counseling, talk-therapy, or prescription medication.

Their rationale is that the potential benefit of such screening outweighs the associated risks that might come with treatment – including prescription medication.  Frankly this seems like another means of making primary care physicians the portal to a much broader range of treatments – whether wanted or unwanted.  What happens if the screening says you might be depressed but you don’t want to pursue further analysis or treatment?  At what point is this information shared with the insurance companies and the government?  Primary care physicians – who already don’t have enough time to adequately get to know their patients – will have yet another battery of paperwork to deal with.  But hey, since we all have to have insurance anyways it can just get billed through them and nobody has to pay for anything still, right?  What a great deal!  Free billable items for doctors and patients alike!

Being helpful is a good thing, but it can take on ominous tones when it’s not requested and when the results of such good intentions are ill-defined.  I’m automatically suspicious of information-gathering programs despite the fact that they might be helpful to some people.  If you refuse the evaluations will your primary care physician refuse to see you?  Whenever something is pushed as mandatory, eventually there will be penalties to coerce cooperation from those of us who are not so cooperative.

It also makes me wonder how worried people are about depression.  Are rates of depression a lot higher than we tend to think or imagine?  Curious indeed.

Bad News

January 25, 2016

2015 wasn’t just bad for global warming and any number of other statistics.  It was also a bad year, statistically, to be a Christian.  Christians were persecuted more in 2015 than any other year on record – which sounds like an ambiguous claim, but is worth noting all the same.

Reading Ramblings – January 31, 2016

January 24, 2016

Reading Ramblings

Date: Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, January 31, 2016

Texts: Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; 1 Corinthians 12:31b-13:13; Luke 4:31-44

Context: If the Word of God is as powerful as God demonstrates it to be, we should anticipate resistance to it. The enemy, Satan, who hates God but cannot hurt God, seeks to keep us from speaking and receiving God’s Word, the Word that brings life from death by delivering people from Satan’s power and into the kingdom of God. Such knowledge can be intimidating. What if we say the wrong thing? What if we don’t know what to say? What if we end up driving someone farther away from God rather than bringing them closer to him? Our fears are sometimes overwhelming, yet God’s assurances are firm. We do not speak alone, and we must trust not our lips or our eloquence or our knoweldge but rather the Word itself to create life where there is only death.

Jeremiah 1:4-10 – What an amazing and intimidating revelation! God has determined that Jeremiah would speak to the nations, before Jeremiah was even born! Intimidating but also reassuring. Can we doubt God’s purpose and his power? Jeremiah seems to, recoiling from the Lord’s calling on him. But the Lord is confident. Where we see only inadequacy, the power of God rushes in to fill the voids, accomplishing his purpose. We are to trust not in our own mouths but in the Word of God that we might be called to speak, trusting that if God the Holy Spirit leads us to that situation, God the Holy Spirit will be with us to give us the words necessary. Note that there is no emphasis on the results of Jeremiah’s speaking. Jeremiah’s sole concern is speaking what the Lord gives him to say. Will there be opposition? It would seem so, since the Lord counsels Jeremiah not to be afraid. Could there be danger? Yes, but the Lord will rescue him. It is not the person of Jeremiah who holds the power here, it is the Word of God placed in his mouth.

Psalm 71:1-6 – The psalmist acknowledges that God is his source of security from the threats of the world and people around him. With God as his refuge he can trust not to be put to shame, because God is capable of rescuing and delivering him. Only God has this ability. There is no other source of hope and confidence and security as strong as God. Who is it that would threaten and rage against one who has God as her hope and security? The wicked. The evil. The cruel. These are not new enemies, rather they are enemies that have watched for many years, noting the speaker’s life-long trust in God. God has always been the speaker’s hope and refuge so it is no surprise that the speaker turns to God now. Perhaps it has been the speaker’s praise of God that has roused her enemies against her. Yet despite the dangers that assail her, the speaker will continue to do what she has always done – trust in God.

1 Corinthians 12:31b-13:13 – Having just explained the importance of all God’s gifts, and how they are given as a blessing to the people of God and not for personal vanity or gain (v. 7). The gifts of the Holy Spirit are wonderful and a blessing, but for the Corinthians they have become a source of conflict and strife and even competition. Certain gifts are held up as most valuable while others are scorned. While each gift is to be valued, the greatest gift is not any of these things but rather love.

It is love that allows each gift to be used to the fullest potential, and love that helps keep that gift from being abused. Perfect love allows the gifts to be used and received perfectly. However, there’s a problem here. Who loves like this? I sure don’t. I haven’t met anyone who does (though my wife comes close!). The truth is that only God loves like this. If perfect love is the safeguard against abuse or misuse of God the Holy Spirit’s good gifts, what guarantee do I have that I will use or receive them properly? There is none, and I am pretty much guaranteed to NOT use or receive them properly. I think this is Paul’s point, and why he will go on to give some very specific advice and direction in Chapter 14. None of us can claim to love perfectly, so we must all remain humble and open to the idea that we are misusing or abusing or neglecting the good gifts of God the Holy Spirit. Christian community should never assume that they’re getting this perfectly right.

Luke 4:31-44 – If we want to consider opposition to the Gospel, it’s hard to get much more intimidating than having demons coming out against you! Dealing with a hardcore and outspoken (and popular) atheist like Richard Dawkins or Ricky Gervais would seem to be a cakewalk compared to being confronted by an evil spirit.

But this is what Jesus confronts, the first overt opposition to his work and teaching (other than his rejection by his hometown just previously in the chapter). If you were going to have second thoughts about a specific course of action, certainly being nearly killed by the people you grew up among, and then challenged by evil spirits would be enough to make you think maybe another course of action would be more effective!

Yet Jesus remains resolute. Despite being challenged in the middle of his sermon in the middle of worship (a pastoral nightmare of mine!), Jesus remains calm and collected. He is not afraid. He rebukes the demon and demands that he leave the man. The demon of necessity complies – Jesus is fully human but also fully divine as the Second Person of the Trinity. It is not a power struggle. What Jesus says must happen. The demon makes this clear in what he asks. He identifies Jesus properly and also identifies what Jesus’ presence signifies – the final judgment. The demon is mistaken (as were the Jews) only in the issue of timing.

Jesus’ authority continues to be demonstrated in healing illnesses and in further exorcisms. Again, the demons know who Jesus is. Their attempts to identify him publicly are likely intended to complicate and confuse his ministry. Jesus silences them so that they cannot sabotage what He is doing.

Through it all Jesus remains focused and on task. Opposition to the Word does not mean that the Word should not be spoken. “I must preach the Good News” Jesus says in verse 43, and the Church would do well to remember these words and seek to be faithful to them in the face of increasing cultural hostility or apathy. The Good News still needs to be proclaimed. The Son of God came into the world to suffer and die to redeem creation from sin and death and Satan. Those benefits are extended to every single person in the world throughout history, and to every individual today. Nothing other than trust in this is required. There can be no greater news, no more important truth. The Church must remember this and be faithful to this even when people don’t come out to hear it or receive it with indifference or tepid hearts. Like Jesus, it is the Church’s job to preach the Good News. It is the Holy Spirit’s job to be at work where that good news is spoken or read.

Jesus must take to heart the words from the call of Jeremiah in the Old Testament lesson – what God ordains God provides the power to accomplish. In whatever way God wishes to use you and I towards his glory, He will equip us with the stamina or the courage or whatever is necessary to do so, regardless of the opposition or the apparent futility of such work.