Archive for July, 2019

Schrödinger’s Meth-Head

July 21, 2019

Almost exactly a year ago I created a Schrödinger’s Meth-Head situation that is still ongoing.

Schrödinger is  famous for a thought experiment involving a cat in a sealed steel box with a bit of radioactive material inside along with a hammer and a small glass vial of hydrogen cyanide.  If a single atom of the radioactive material decayed, it would trigger a mechanism that would drop the hammer, shatter the vial, and the cat would die from the poisonous gas.  On the other hand, if no atom decayed, the cat would remain alive.   There was no way to know the status of the cat without opening the steel box.  The cat effectively would remain both dead and alive simultaneously (effectively) until somebody could verify the status.

I have no idea what happened to that young woman.  I still pray and like to think she got on the bus and did the right thing.  Nothing in my experience with recovering addicts in the last year leads me to think this is very likely.  But I can pray it is.  That she’s in recovery, getting the help she needs, moving on with her life.

I’m undecided as to whether I like this status of not knowing.  It is what it is.  And ultimately, regardless of whether she made it home or not, I can pray that her life is better today than it was a year ago when our paths crossed.

So I do.

Reading Ramblings – July 21, 2019

July 14, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Sixth Sunday after Pentecost ~ July 21, 2019

Texts: Genesis 18:1-14; Psalm 27; Colossians 1:15-29; Luke 10:38-42

Context: Two women, separated by roughly 2000 years but perhaps little else. Both tending households. Both given the unique opportunity to serve the Son of God (I side with those who see in Old Testament accounts of a physically present God a pre-figuring of the Son of God, Jesus). Each one listening in to a conversation the Son of God is having with someone else in the household. Each one preoccupied with their duties yet hoping perhaps for something more. So many different nuances in these passages. Hospitality. Domesticity. The presence of God with his people, and the love and care of God for his people even when they are focused on other things.

Genesis 18:1-14 – The assigned reading only goes through the first half of verse 10, indicating that the intended focus is on Sarah serving, rather than the divine exchange with her regarding a promised son and clarifying the relationship between this passage and the Gospel. However the story is so classic that it seems a shame not to finish it out! Sarah is busy with her duties. Her husband sits at leisure with his guests. She does all the work, yet Abraham has the honor of being the host who presents the meal to his guests. Yet as Sarah labors behind the scenes, seemingly unnoticed, it is clear that she is not unnoticed. The Lord inquires of her. But this is hardly necessary. The Lord who created Sarah knows her better than she knows herself. And He loving passes over her dishonesty and incredulity. More important things are afoot, and Sarah is remembered thousands of years later because of them and the promise that she would bear in the birth of Isaac.

Psalm 27 – The assigned portion of this psalm is just the second half – verses 7-14. Again I believe this is done to narrow the focus but I prefer to read complete sections of Scripture rather than fragments whenever possible. These words might well have been spoken by Sarah or Martha in their hearts, but the texts are silent on the matter. Likewise the texts are effectively silent as to what prayers Sarah and Martha might have prayed and waited for answers on, though Sarah’s thoughts in Genesis 18:12 might be interpreted as evidence of many years of frustrated prayer. The emphasis in the latter half of this psalm is patience, trust not only in the Lord’s care and presence but his timing, which may not always line up with our own preferred timelines. The psalmist faces adversity in the form of enemies. If this is a psalm of David then it might refer to the rebellion of his son Absalom. But the main emphasis for the speaker is rightness with God, proper worship and contemplation of the divine more than a particular prayer for deliverance. Deliverance is presumed: the Lord is capable of delivering the psalmist from any situation, and while the psalmist prays for such deliverance from this present situation (vs. 5-6), the psalm as a whole is more an assertion of the Lord’s ongoing and eternal goodness, and the importance of right relationship with God as the foremost concern.

Colossians 1:15-29 – I’m not sure why the assigned reading skips vs. 15-20. Yes, it’s a discrete unit of thought and therefore easily removed, but if the point of lectio continua is to read portions of Scripture in whole, it makes no sense to exclude this. And in fact, what appears to be a tangential discussion of the nature of the Son of God is in fact very important in tying together the assurance of forgiveness and redemption in v. 14b with the reality of who the Colossians used to be in v.21. It is because of the eternal and divine nature of the Son of God, Jesus the Messiah, that the Colossians can rest assured of their grace and forgiveness. These are real things they can trust because of the reality and trustworthiness of God the Father himself, acting through and in God the Son. It is our faith that binds us to these promises.

But invariably the focus is drawn to vs. 24-25. What is Paul saying here? Were Christ’s sufferings somehow insufficient or inadequate? Is Paul adding to what Christ accomplished, improving upon it, extending it somehow? We must be careful with the language here. The concept of affliction is never associated with Christ’s redemptive death. Jesus dying for our sins on the cross is never described in Scripture as an affliction. But the nature of his public ministry might well be described as a long series of afflictions(Matthew 8:20, etc.). And Jesus makes it clear to his disciples that they will likewise endure many things for his name (Matthew 10:25, etc.). So Paul’s meaning here might be better translated as furthering the afflictions which Jesus suffered, just as many of the faithful over the centuries have endured terrible things for the sake of Jesus’ name. Paul’s sufferings in this respect have no bearing on salvation – they are not meritorious for the forgiveness of sins as Jesus’ afflictions and suffering and death were. But they are instructive to those who come after, just as Jesus’ personal ministry style was instructive to those who came after. All this to the end of making the Word of God fully known (v.25).

Luke 10:38-42 – The Gospel reading is the centerpiece text on any given Sunday. I’m not sure I’m completely comfortable with this, as it might mislead people somehow into thinking that it’s really just the red-letter aspects of the Bible – the things Jesus specifically said or did – that are somehow qualitatively better than the rest of Scripture. It might be said that they are oftentimes clearer, clarifying Scriptural interpretation for us, but the entire Bible is the Word of God. Yet it is true that the Old Testament points forward in various ways to the incarnation of the Son of God, and there is a logical rightness to making this incarnation the focal point.

Once again the woman in the domestic setting, providing for the needs of her honored guests. But it is not just a guest but the Son of God she serves, and as such He knows her and her concerns, perhaps a long history of sibling jealousy or small skirmishes based on personality differences. And yet clearly there is more to it than this, as Jesus declares in v.41. Martha has many things on her mind, perhaps perpetually. Yet only one of those many things is important, and only one of them sits in her house, present and tangible, teaching and sharing. Surely this is more important than a meal?

Notice that Jesus doesn’t tell Martha to quit making the food and come in and sit down. It isn’t what she’s doing that’s wrong, but rather how she’s feeling, and her desire to compel her sister to the same priorities as herself. Rather than reinforcing Martha’s request that Mary come and help her, Jesus makes it clear that He will not do this, but rather affirms Mary’s priority. Compare this to Psalm 24. David had many things on his mind as well but he knew what was most important. It is this Martha has lost sight of.

Jesus is the one needful thing. Our acts of service are demonstrations of love of God and neighbor and the world has need of them. We can’t all sit at Jesus’ feet 24/7. But even as we labor in our vocations, we can keep our eyes fixed on him, knowing that what we do ultimately is for and because of him. This should guide not just our actions but our motivations and attitudes.

Pumps & Systems

July 9, 2019

That’s the name of the magazine.  Really.

Thanks to Lois for sharing this article with me.  It’s a brief story about Mike Rowe, the guy who became famous for a show about dirty jobs and has gone on to become a leading proponent for re-introducing the trades to upcoming generations who are almost exclusively steered towards a 4-year degree – and the associated debt which more often than not goes along with it.

It’s something we continue to talk with our kids as they get older (17, 14, and 13) and look to the future.  As a former university faculty member I value education greatly.  But I also know there are many ways to learn throughout your life that don’t require the debt and other issues associated with a 4-year degree.  I worked my way through my undergraduate degree because back then you could still do that with part-time jobs.  Now even if you go to an in-state public school you aren’t going to be able to work and pay your way through it.

There’s nothing wrong with considering the trades.  Lord knows we need good, honest plumbers, electricians, and all manner of other folk to survive, and this is a beautiful way of loving your neighbor as you love God.  It isn’t necessarily for everyone, but neither is college.

I hope more and more folks will consider all of their options – or all of the options for their kids and grandkids.  You don’t need a college degree to be intelligent.  You don’t need six figures of student loan debt to be well-rounded.   You just need to know who you are and how God has gifted you.

Book Review: The Best We Could Do

July 8, 2019

The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir  by Thi Bui

I received my first graphic novel in late high school or early college, a gift from my best friend.  As a literature junky, I found it interesting, but difficult to consider it literature.  The artwork was good, the story was interesting, but it felt too compacted, too  sparse.

My interest in Vietnam and it’s history began years ago when I was tasked with taking over teaching a course on the Vietnam conflict from a fellow faculty  member.  I did a lot of reading and grew fascinated by the curious role of this country in the larger Cold War maneuverings of China, the United States, and the Soviet Union.  During seminary the field work congregation I served was in the process of attempting to merge with a Vietnamese Lutheran congregation, and I was able to spend time with the several Vietnamese families, second generation folks who came over when their parents fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon.  Then in 2016 my wife and I were privileged to visit the country on business and pleasure purposes, and it deepened my appreciation of the beauty of the country and people as well as the complexity of their history, of which the US was only a very small part.

And Vietnamese cuisine is amazing – something that has been on my radar for  the last 20+ years!

So this book was a mixture of interests, memories, and impressions.  While I think it’s a great work, I still don’t know what to make of the graphic novel format.  If I don’t try to think of it as literature, but its own unique  thing, it’s much simpler.  Thi Bui tells a wonderful and at times overwhelming family story, and does so in a way that is compelling both visually and textually.  It is not an easy story, and she doesn’t attempt to reduce it to one, but rather to find a way to live with and in the complexity that is her family and her two countries.

If you’re interested in memoirs, family dynamics, Vietnam or history, this is a very worthwhile read.

 

Reading Ramblings – July 14, 2019

July 7, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Fifth Sunday after Pentecost ~ July 14, 2019

Texts: Leviticus (18:1-5)19:9-18; Psalm 41; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37

Context: How we treat one another matters. It is not simply a matter of getting along, of utilitarian best practices. Rather, it is a reflection of our relationship with our Creator, and an acknowledgment of his wisdom and holiness. We are not free to innovate. The readings reflect both the divine imperative in this matter as well as pictures of how this plays out and makes a real difference in our individual and corporate lives.

Leviticus 18:1-5, 19:9-18 – The first five verses of Chapter 18 set the context for the lengthy discourse on divinely instituted morality and ethics. This context is necessary to properly receive all that follows, including the verses assigned in Chapter 19. In these verses, as elsewhere, each directive is ended with the reminder I am the Lord. More accurately, I am YHWH, and God identifies himself by the name He gave to Moses in Exodus 3. The God who directs the Israelites in their personal and public life is the God who brought them out of slavery and saved them from the genocidal policies of the Egyptians. He is the same God who currently sustains them in the wilderness and has promised to bring them to their own land. He is the God they have pledged covenant faithfulness to, and receive their protection from. As such, these directives are not to be questioned or ignored but followed faithfully with the understanding that to do so is to walk in the way of a good life (18:5). These particular directives remind us that what we have is not exclusively ours, but is ours in a larger communal context. God does not socialize property, but makes it clear that what is given personally is not exclusively for personal use. Likewise, both our private feelings (19:17) as well as our public actions are guided by an overarching love for our neighbor as a fellow creature, a child of God. It might reasonably be argued that these edicts apply first and foremost to those who share faith in our God, it would also seem highly unreasonable to insist that they only apply to our brothers and sisters in faith.

Psalm 41 – This is a very personal and touching psalm, yet broad enough that most any of us might find these words appropriate at one point or another in our lives. The first three verses assert how the Lord blesses and protects the one who has consideration for the poor, a phrase which can only likely mean not merely an awareness or pity but an active response to specific poverty as per Leviticus 19. As such, it may be that the sin referenced in v.4 is a sin of omission or commission in this regard – failing to adequately care for the poor. Could it be a reference to Bathsheba, and David’s appropriation of another man’s wife, a man poor in comparison to the power of the King of Israel? Perhaps, but it is not necessarily the case. Verses 5-9 flesh out skillfully the impact of unfaithful friends, of those who do not practice the good will and love of neighbor highlighted in Leviticus 19. How brutal such betrayal and malice is! But verses 10-12 make it clear that despite the ill-will shown to the speaker, God has restored him and protected him from the evil intentions of others, and therefore God is rightly to be praised in the doxology (a short expression of Christian praise of God) of v.13.

Colossians 1:1-14 – Having concluded Galatians, we continue in the lectio continua tradition of Ordinary Time by starting through another of Paul’s letters, this time to the Colossians. Today’s section is comprised of the traditional first parts of a properly organized Roman letter. First there is the greeting that identifies who the letter is from and who it is directed to (vs. 1-2). Then there is a section for thanksgiving, which Paul normally uses to give thanks to God on behalf of the addressees. This is no perfunctory thanks, but a detailed and personalized section. Similar to the Thessalonians, Paul gives thanks to God for the faithfulness of the Colossians as expressed in their love of those in Christ, all of which is motivated by their identity in Christ and the glories they look forward to when they are reunited with him eternally. Paul credits Epaphras with the solid foundation of the Colossians’ faith. Paul speaks highly of Epaphras here and commends his ministry. He is mentioned again near the close of this letter and described as one of you, likely meaning he hails from Colossae and may have been part of the church there before joining Paul in his missionary work. This might explain then why Paul mentions Epaphras once more in his letter to Philemon, where Epaphras is identified as a fellow prisoner with Paul (Philemon 1:23) who sends greetings to Philemon. But Paul doesn’t simply give thanks for the Colossian Christians, he prays specifically for their continued knowledge, wisdom, and faithful living out of these gifts, and that they be strengthened towards endurance and patience and joy.

Luke 10:25-37 – Jesus applies and describes love of neighbor in terms that would be very challenging for his hearers. They likely interpreted the directives of Leviticus 19 in a narrow sense, limiting them to just their fellow Jews. But Jesus makes it clear that such an application is not appropriate. Neighbor is not defined by theological or cultural similarities, but transcends these categories. We should be quick to note that this parable is typically used to exhort us to being good neighbors. But the reality is that each of us has a limit to how much we can love and who we can love. Good intentions are no substitute for the perfect and total love we are called to by the Law of God. There is only one who perfectly fulfills love of neighbor as the moral imperative, and that is the Son of God himself, who both suffers the ill-will of his fellow-man like the man in this story, and in turn shows perfect and selfless love not just for those like him but those who sought to do him harm. It is hard to read this parable and not hear Jesus on the cross interceding for his antagonists, asking God to forgive them in their ignorant hatred.

Voluntary Book Burnings

July 3, 2019

I’m a huge fan of Ray Bradbury, and while I’m  not sure I would agree that his most famous work, Fahrenheit 451 is his best work (or at least my favorite), it is hugely influential culturally for good reason.  But his warning against autocratic suppression and elimination of undesirable literature and eventually all books assumes the idea that such policies will be implemented by a hostile governing authority under rule of law.

I agree with Neil Postman in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death that such warnings as Bradbury’s and George Orwell were good in inoculating us against fascism and communism, but powerless to prepare us for a reality where people  are primed primarily to amass unrelated trivia facts and focus on non-stop self-entertainment.  Rather, we should have also been pushed more  to consider the ramifications of another means of control, one of abdication of personal responsibility along the lines of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

So it is that books can be banned instead of burned.  Not as an official government policy but simply by merchants being pressured to not carry some books that some people  find offensive.  However when the merchant is Amazon, the impacts of such non-binding restrictions can be far more powerful than if individual brick and mortar bookshops were targeted and pressured.  And without most of the possible negative repercussions.  So it is that Amazon will quit selling certain books.  The nice thing is  that this has been noticed.  The scarier reality is that undoubtedly lots of decisions about what to carry or not carry are regularly made.

Online vendors (and traditional brick-and-mortar outfits) generally have the appearance of being objective.  They carry a variety of things they hope to sell, and selling is their primary motivation, we assume.  In reality, every person and therefore every organization is inclined towards what they are or aren’t willing to sell.  Objectivity is not completely possible, and factors beyond what the customer might want come into play.

You might want to think twice about what’s on your bookshelf and making sure that you save certain things.  They might not be available down the road.