Archive for April, 2020

Theudas & Judah of Galilee

April 16, 2020

The Epistle reading for this Sunday is Acts 5:29-42.  It’s an interesting passage full of historical personages we have conflicting information on beyond Scripture itself.  Some see this passage as problematic, particularly in reference to Theudas and Judas of Galilee.

From the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus we know of a Theudas who apparently intended to lead a revolt against the Romans.  However Josephus implies a Theudas active after this passage written by St. Luke, culminating in the dispersal of Theudas’ adherents and Theudas’ decapitation under order of the Roman procurator Cuspiuss Fadus, who ruled in Judea from AD 44-46.  This causes some to assert an error in Scripture.  But such an assertion rests on the confidence that the Theudas mentioned in Acts 5 is intended to be the same one Josephus mentions.  It also presumes Josephus is correct and, while Josephus is a respected historical source, he is also known to be in error upon occasion.  Scholars differ as to how common the name Theudas was in the first century (the meaning of the name is either gift of God or perhaps flowing with water, depending on where you source the name).  Respected New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce indicates it was probably a fairly common name (The Book of Acts, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, p.125 footnote 47).  However The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia claims it was an uncommon name (p.838).

At most we have a curiosity, and it would seem rash to rush to the assumption Luke has his information wrong (or misquoted Gamaliel).

The second figure mentioned is Judas of Galilee, whom Luke quotes Gamaliel as referencing “in the time of the census”, but after Theudas.  If the census mentioned is the one Luke mentions in his Gospel, it would provide significant complications by making Theudas’ revolt far too early to ever reconcile with Josephus.

We know of three Roman census’ that fall within the Biblical time frame – one in 8 BC, one in AD 14, and one in AD 47.  The one in 8 BC matches well with the time frame of Jesus’ birth, and the AD 47 census would be after the account of Acts 5.  But it could be Gamaliel is referring to the census in AD 14.

This would not remove the conflict with Josephus’ account of things, but given how accurate Luke is on many other technical issues in his writings, it’s not necessarily fair to presume the error lies with him.  Nor does the above information rule out the possibility of other figures with similar names that we don’t have external historical corroboration for.

Gamaliel himself is a well known-historical figure.  He was the grandson of the great rabbi Hillel the Elder.  He has considerable documentation validating his existence, identity, and the role Luke attributes to him in the Sanhedrin.  He is believed to have died in AD 52.

A lot of information for a relatively short passage!

Which Court Is the Ball In?

April 15, 2020

The Los Angeles Times today ran an editorial by journalist Michael Hiltzik claiming consumers will be the ones to dictate when the US economy goes back to work from the Coronavirus shutdown.  The pace of any return to normality will be dictated by you and me – by consumers making their own judgments about when it will be safe to resume old habits, and business owners running cost-benefit analyses on when a flow of customers will warrant reopening.

It’s a very warm and fuzzy,  we’re-all-in-this-together kind of pro-America statement one might expect to find in newspapers, or perhaps newspapers of another era.  The irony however is that his statement is blatantly false – for now.  It is not consumers or business owners who are making these decisions but rather government officials – governors and mayors and other officials who direct law enforcement to enforce edicts on what businesses are essential and non-essential.

The photo above is what this looks like.  My favorite used bookstore had this posted on their window warning them to cease operations.  As with many small businesses, they were working to figure out how to honor social distancing and other recommendations.  They set up a system where people could order books and pick them up curbside.  They also offered a bag o’ books program where people could pay a set price for a random selection of books in a bag.  Apparently that’s not good enough.  What really matters is whether the State thinks you’re essential or not.  If you aren’t essential, it doesn’t matter whether you’re following best practices to keep your employees and customers healthy. The e-mail it came in indicated there were threats of large fines if they ignored the order to shut their doors.

(This whole topic is ironic,  in that I just re-watched last night one of my all-time Favorite The Twilight Zone episodes – the second season finale The Obsolete Man)

Ideally, it should be a matter of consumers and business owners figuring this stuff out.  If consumers don’t feel safe they won’t go shopping which will drive business owners to reduce hours and do other things to compensate.  But when the government is involved in the mix in terms of dictating  not only how to do business but whether your business is essential or not, things get complicated.  Fast.  And it derails the free-market principles that otherwise (at least imperfectly and impurely) work in our economic system.

One of the fish Hiltzik is trying to fry is Trump, of course.  Trump’s spat with state governors over who controls when the US returns to work or not.  Hintzik’s real issue is to argue against Trump’s claims.

But Hiltzik also envisions a US workplace very different than a month ago.  A workplace governed by social distancing and other factors.  Are these factors mandated by the government or dictated by the free market system?  Are consumers going to demand these changes and so employers will accommodate them?  He recognizes this will increase costs – but those increased costs may not enable businesses that were viable  a month ago to remain viable.  If you operate a restaurant – an example Hiltzik mentions – reducing your seating capacity and therefore the amount of business you can bring in may make your entire business model untenable.  Who is going to be driving those changes and the attendant business closures – the government, or the free market?

But the bigger fish than Trump Hiltzik’s dealing with is capitalism itself, chastising the US for not handling aid like many other countries in the world have – by funneling money to businesses so they won’t lay off their employees even though they can’t be open for business.  He cites our unemployment issue as an “American peculiarity” not  seen in other countries because in those countries, wages are socialized for the current crisis.  He doesn’t indicate or cite whether in those other countries wages were socialized to some extent before the crisis, though the short list of examples he cites certainly have a lot of socialist economies in them.  Certainly America’s response to the crisis will be peculiar because we are – or at least once were – very peculiar indeed.  A place where the well-being of our people was dictated by the people rather than the State, with according levels of risk and reward that more directly benefited the people taking the risks.  If you were willing to innovate to find out how to create a new business opportunity when nobody else was there was the hope you could benefit financially from your risk-taking.  Now, taking risks is much harder to do because the State dictates more of what can and can’t be done – all the way down to mandating which businesses are essential and which aren’t, even if risk mitigation efforts are put into place which are acceptable practices for essential businesses.

Hiltzik clearly favors a socialist approach to things, touting calls for guaranteed paychecks for all Americans until things return to normal.  He doesn’t indicate how that massive expenditure would be paid for.   Nor does he indicate how making such a demand integrates with a government imposed shutdown.  Our governor is working on plans on how to reopen the economy in our state, though his roadmap is so vague as to literally useless.  He cites six criteria that will guide his determination of when it’s safe to go back to work, and in what fashion.  And he’s bluntly stated that neither consumers nor business owners will have much say in that – if any.  Science, rather, is what he claims will guide his decisions as he positions himself for a future presidential run by loaning out the very medical equipment he cites as one of the six criteria that must be met before reopening the economy.

Hiltzik’s idea that consumers and business owner should drive decisions is right on – even if I don’t think he really believes that’s true.  As the ones facing the predominant economic and health risks in this entire crisis, it’s patently unfair to dictate to us how we must handle the situation and then stick us with the bill for paying for it – whether we wanted it or not.  It might be a plan that works in socialist economies, but it’s a poor and dishonest fit for the free market we ought to be proud of and which continues to draw people from around the world to make America their home so they might possibly benefit from it in ways then can’t in their own economies.

Changed Priorities

April 14, 2020

Our congregation  has been talking for the better part of a year now about how to plan for the future.  Lots of things have been said in any number of directions, but one thing that continued to rise to the top of priorities was the preservation of our current campus.  Various planning groups and a few very vocal individuals insisted that we could never consider any plans for the future that would cause us to leave this campus and worship space, even if we were leaving it for good reasons and to accomplish the ongoing mission of the congregation.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a gorgeous worship facility.  But having watched firsthand as more than a few small congregations prioritize  their property and worship space over all other considerations, I disagree with the idea that your buildings and land – whether in a place where land is cheap or pricey – is the top priority of a congregation.  After all, our congregation has had three and a half other worship sites over the century they’ve been around, so it isn’t as  though the congregation as an entity is a stranger to assessing a piece of property and determining it’s time for something different.  But for many of the members, it’s either the first time they’ve been challenged to assess objectively a worship space or it’s been 50-60 years since the last time they faced that challenge.

We’re close to the end of those discussions for a variety of reasons, and it doesn’t look like we’re going to be going anywhere very soon.  That’s the congregation’s responsibility – to make those sorts of decisions, and I think they’ll be able to do so fairly easily.

But it’s amazing how quickly priorities can change.

We’ve been sheltering in place now for a month, and we haven’t met for worship together for a month.  We aren’t sure how long that situation is going to continue but it could be another six weeks.

As I talk with members or lead Zoom gatherings, it’s funny how little  attention or interest is given to the building and the space.  It’s not as though they won’t be glad to worship there again.  But the way their faces and voices light up when they see each other on a tiny little computer screen, it’s obvious they are experiencing very clearly that the Church is not a building or a space – no matter how beautiful or beloved – but rather the Church is the people of God, and what we value most is one another – as we should.

A month of watching sermons and Bible studies online and communicating primarily through e-mails and texts and video conferencing can be clarifying, if unpleasant.  It reminds us  we are capable of dealing with a lot more than we might imagine we were in better times. It reminds us that while buildings and amenities are nice they are never a substitute for the brothers and sisters in Christ we love and cherish.

It likely won’t change the congregation’s decision on their property, but it hopefully puts things back in their proper place in terms of priorities, and that can’t help but be good.

 

When the Emperor Tells You to Strip

April 13, 2020

You might be familiar with the Hans Christian Andersen fable The Emperor’s New Clothes.  In it an emperor is convinced he is wearing an amazing new suit of clothes that will be invisible to anyone who is stupid or unworthy of their position.  In fear of being seen as stupid, nobody around the Emperor wants to tell him he’s naked.  People play along with the Emperor’s whims rather than risk their social status or rank or public opinion.  A child is the only honest one, perhaps in part because the child has nothing to lose, but mostly because children are sometimes able to call a thing for what it is when nobody else will.

A cautionary tale about the dangers of power and the influence power has on the otherwise common sense of people.  But what if instead of just pretending to admire the Emperor’s clothes, you were commanded to strip naked as well?  What then?

It sure feels like that is what Americans – and perhaps most of the world – are being asked to do in fear of COVID-19.  We are being asked to sacrifice our personal economic well-being and the well-being of our families in order to stay physically safe from a terrifying and mysterious infection.  Numbers are paraded out unceasingly to show us how dangerous COVID-19 is.  But the numbers are often portrayed in isolation from any other numbers that would provide context for them.

For instance, headlines recently blared that America surpassed Italy’s COVID-19 death toll.  Since we all remember the headlines about Italy a few weeks ago when COVID-19 hit there, this sounds terrifying!  But it assumes that America was in a better position than Italy to deal with COVID-19, which I doubt is the case (or the case for much of any country), and it ignores the fact that the US has six times the population of Italy, so it seems only reasonable the number of deaths here would be higher.  It also ignores the fact that Italy currently is on a downward trend in terms of  number of infections and deaths.  Yet without any other information, the headlines just hype fear and worry.

But news half-stories are the basis driving our government officials to insist on forcing businesses to close and lay off people.  We are told it is worth destroying our economy, putting millions of people out of work and on unemployment, and destroying untold numbers of small, medium, and even a few large companies because the alternative is the danger of spreading COVID-19, which we are told is more contagious than the flu and more deadly as well.  Two trillion dollars has already been spent in the US on COVID-19 relief and far more actually has and will be spent in terms of state of emergency spending and other forms of government relief to citizens and businesses (oh, and don’t forget banks).

But let’s examine these claims.

In terms of contagiousness, we are daily given new statistics about continuing rates of infection of COVID-19.  Some sources say the rate of infections is slowing and other sources don’t.  But both are using numbers that are, charitably at best, inadequate or, at worst, wrong.  The numbers reported are newly confirmed cases.  Confirmed cases occur when someone tests positive for COVID-19, either alive or dead.  But not everyone with symptoms of COVID-19 is tested.  Despite repeated assurances of widespread testing being made available, testing is still reserved only for those with severe symptoms.  While I don’t know anyone diagnosed with COVID-19 (or anyone who knows anyone for that matter), I do know of at least one person who was refused testing because their symptoms weren’t acute enough to warrant testing.  I’m positive that person didn’t have COVID-19, but the fact that they weren’t tested is a reminder that testing is far from ubiquitous.  Tests are only for those who evidence the full-blown symptoms.

And tigers.

So the numbers being cited of infection rates can hardly be accurate since testing is so spotty and limited.  There are two conclusions we can draw from this.  One would be that we are incredibly good at visually identifying the tell-tale signs of COVID-19 and excluding by external observation cases that aren’t, so the infection rates being reported are essentially accurate because we’re actually testing most of the people who actually have it.  In which case, the more lethal nature of COVID-19 is substantiated because we’re likely identifying most of the actual cases of COVID-19.

Personally, I find that hard to believe.

The other conclusion has two versions.  One is that the reported rates of infection are representative and can be extrapolated out to  the entire population of the country/world.  This of course results in much higher levels of infection and much lower mortality rates.  Or, since we’re only testing extreme cases, the reported  rates of infection are not at all accurate and infection rates are much higher across the board, which drastically reduces the mortality rate associated with COVID-19.

And if COVID-19 isn’t nearly as lethal as it’s being portrayed, why are we destroying our entire economy and  Lord knows what else to contain the infection levels? Are there other options to shuttering an entire economy and trying to force people to stay home as Constitutional rights are violated?

Our county has – as of the 2010 census, roughly 424,000 people in it.  There have been 264 identified cases of COVID-19 as of yesterday.  Over 80% of the identified cases are either fully recovered or in recovery at home.  There have been two deaths in the county thus far.  Yet the entire county is supposed to shelter in place and embrace the drastic measures applied in much higher infection areas and cities.

Things just don’t add up.  I’m more than happy to be educated in why my assessment of this is wrong.  And certainly I know the issue is more threatening to people older than I am (though I’m snugly in the middle of the two age ranges with the highest reported rates of infection in my county).  I know in some more congested areas of the country things are worse – that only makes sense.  Yet the same precautions insisted upon in many of the hardest hit urban areas are expected from our county as well?  The people I know are out of work and hoping for unemployment for a localized rate of infection that is ridiculously small.  In the most recent data available (2017) there were 53 deaths in our county in one year from the flu and/or flu-like illnesses.  Nearly 30 times as many deaths in a single flu season than COVID-19 thus far.  Certainly more people could die of COVID-19, but still.  At this point, the flu is far more dangerous in our county than COVID-19.

It leads one to wonder how much of this is based simply on the novelty of COVID-19.  After all, the flu is no big deal.  It’s been around forever.  We’ve learned to live with it and we’re comfortable with the idea that a lot of people get sick every year  from it (~19 million nationwide) and a lot of people die from it (~24,000 nationwide).  There’s nothing we can do about it (apparently), so we just deal with it.  Oh, and get your flu shots, we’re told.  Even though the 24,000 fatalities expected this flu season are going to happen despite wide scale efforts to convince people to get their flu shots.

But COVID-19 comes along and it’s new and sexy and we can mount a massive effort to provide a vaccine for it, despite the fact we lost interest in creating vaccines for other Corona-family viruses like SARS and MERS.  Once the epidemic or pandemic subsides, there’s no money to be made in funding a vaccine effort, apparently.

I understand different people have different tolerances levels in terms of anxiety and fear and health-related issues.  But when the government demands we cease work and shutter our businesses because of a medical issue that might be scary because it spreads so quickly but is no more dangerous than the flu, that’s a lot like the emperor demanding everyone else strip naked.  At some point, somebody has to stand up and state the obvious.

This is overkill.  The economic and financial damage is going to be far greater, longer-reaching and harder to recover from than the physical health damage.  It’s time to start thinking how to best continue to protect those most vulnerable to this illness while allowing the rest of the country to get back to work.  It’s time for all of us – including our leaders – to put our clothes back on, acknowledging that perhaps we slowed the spread of the infection through these drastic measures, but that drastic measures can’t  be sustained indefinitely when the illness proves to be far less devastating than originally feared.

 

 

 

 

 

Reading Ramblings – April 19, 2020

April 12, 2020

Reading Ramblings

Date: Second Sunday of Easter – COVID-19 – April 19, 2020

Texts: Acts 5:29-42; Psalm 148; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

Context: He is risen! He is risen indeed! Hallelujah! This is the ancient Easter greeting of God’s people. One tradition traces this back to Mary Magdalene, who journeyed to Rome after Jesus’ ascension to evangelize. Eventually she found herself called to the presence of the Emperor Tiberias, to whom she stated “Christ is risen!”, and then gifted him with a red egg. Eggs were a common gift among the poor on special holidays, and this began the Christian association of eggs with the resurrection. The egg is rumored to have been red because of another unverifiable legend, that of two Jews meeting in Jerusalem on that first Easter Sunday. One asked the other if he had heard the miraculous news of Jesus’ resurrection. The other, carrying a basket of eggs, said he could not believe such a preposterous assertion – it sounded as impossible as white eggs turning red. At which point the eggs in his basket turned red, prompting his conversion to the faith. Whether these stories and the traditions they generate are true or not, the truth of our Lord’s resurrection remains something that deserves a special exclamatory and celebratory phrase! The Lord has risen! He has risen indeed! Hallelujah!

Acts 5:29-42 – The first witnesses of our Lord’s resurrection were commanded to quit talking about it. The religious authorities thought with the death of Jesus, his popularity would fall and his followers would disperse. Wasn’t this what happened naturally to most groups when a leader died – especially if that leader died in disgrace and the threat of similar disgrace was extended to the followers? But Peter and the apostles, who had been so frightened the night of Jesus’ arrest and the day of his execution and burial are no longer afraid. They have seen their risen Lord! How could they ever stop talking about it? Others might take violent action against them but they could never betray the truth the carried. Wiser minds among the religious leadership understood that while they might not believe what the disciples claimed, either the falsity of it would be exposed in due time and without further pressure from the Sanhedrin, or it might actually be true, in which case all the power and threats of the Sanhedrin and Rome itself would be incapable of stopping the spread of such amazing news. History stands as a witness to the truth of Gamaliel’s words.

Psalm 148 – What a beautifully unabashed hymn of praise! The Lord is to be praised, and there are no exceptions as to who or what should be praising him, since He is the creator of everything. The heavenly bodies are called to praise him (vs.1-4), and vs. 5-6 are an interesting clarification – these heavenly beings praise God as their creator. They are heavenly, but they are not divine. They are not to be worshiped but rather to be revered as a mirror of the power and majesty of God who created them. Nature is next called to praise God (vs.7-10) and this includes both natural features as well as the creatures associated with them. Verses 11-12 summon all of humanity from the highest stations to the lowest to praise of their creator. The reason for this praise is finally alluded to in the final verse, as God has raised up a horn for his people. Horns were often symbols of strength, drawn from the animals who possessed them. A horned beast could scatter and defeat enemies. Horns from these animals were taken as musical instruments and also copied into architecture and art – the altar on which sacrifices were burned in the Old Testament had horns on the four corners. So this wording here means strength, deliverance from enemies, security, and all good things for which God truly should be praised!

1 Peter 1:3-9 – This passage is a fantastic summary not only of the source of our faith but also our hope. Peter gives praise to God the Father because it was according to his plan that Jesus the Christ would enter into creation on our behalf. This is motivated by divine mercy, rather than any merit on our part, and that mercy makes possible to us new life grounded in the reality of the resurrection of Jesus. This new life in us is more than life as we think of it in terms of mortality. Rather, it’s an inheritance, something yet to be received in full but guaranteed to us, protected for us and from our enemy, Satan, by God in heaven. This salvation is a reality that will be seen eventually, and anticipated in hope now. As such, even when things here and now are hard, we don’t lose hope or peace or joy. This present moment passes, but what we look forward to does not and will not. Our faith in the midst of struggle and trial is not simply a testimony to our faith, but ultimately to the glory of God who has worked things in this fashion. We give testimony to the goodness and greatness of our God that not even the worst threats of this world can diminish.

John 20:19-31 – Hands and sides. Jesus offers his disciples evidence of who and what He is. Why would this be necessary? Wouldn’t his disciples know him for who He was? The simple answer seems to be no, not necessarily. Mary didn’t recognize him initially outside the tomb. The two men on the road to Emmaus are clearly familiar with Jesus and his work and more than sympathetic to him, yet they don’t recognize him on their walk or even as they sit down to eat with him. When they saw Jesus walking on the water earlier in their time with him (Matthew 14) they presumed him to be a ghost, so there’s some understanding or belief in them that spiritual entities exist and might be the explanation behind things physical beings shouldn’t be able to do.

Against uncertainties and confusions and misunderstandings, against fears of the spectral Jesus offers his physicality. Just as He could walk on water yet remain a physical man, so now Jesus appears before them, alive though slain, standing though buried. Though the marks of his scourging are apparently gone he retains the key signs of his death – the nail holes in his hands and feet as well as the wound from the spear thrust in his side. These wounds remain fresh, unhealed, since He can offer to Thomas even a week later to place his hand in Jesus’ side. These wounds are definitive, and they bring faith and comfort to the ten and then to Thomas as well, and so to you and I.

The disciples knew Jesus. They were expected to differentiate him from some other spiritual presence. His physicality was as real after the resurrection as it had been before, including the fact that his physicality could do things (walk on water, enter locked rooms) other physical human bodies could not. If there is suspicion about the solidity of things as we understand them to be, perhaps it should be suspicion regarding the things around us rather than our bodies themselves!

The disciples are not asked to believe blindly, and neither are we. We are asked to trust testimony, testimony subject to the same evaluation and testing as the other testimony we build our lives around.

Crossing the Line

April 10, 2020

Holy Week hasn’t felt terribly holy this year.

This is not a theological statement – the objective works of the Incarnate Son of God in space and time on behalf of all humanity are not subject to my feelings.  I got that.  I’m referring only to my subjective feelings about those objective events, feelings in part governed by traditions.  Some of those traditions go back nearly 2000 years and bind together Christians from around the world and throughout history.

And subjectively speaking, it hasn’t felt like a very holy Holy Week.  That’s almost entirely due to our congregation – along with nearly other faith group in the United States – suspending all of our worship and in-person activities as part of hoping to stop the spread of COVID-19.

We’ve suspended our services voluntarily, to large degree, though legal counsel early on indicated that what I felt was a rather vague Executive Order could – and likely would – be utilized to force faith groups not to meet if things got bad enough.  Fair enough.  Because the Executive Order included a broad spectrum of businesses and other entities in our state, I didn’t (and still don’t) consider it a direct challenge to religious liberty or something that requires me as an ordained minister to engage in civil disobedience against.

But in Kentucky (not where I live and work), things just changed.

The Governor of Kentucky just issued a direct threatto Christian churches and congregations and individual congregants.  The threat directly pertains to gathering for celebratory worship for Easter, the holiest and most important day in the Christian faith (and all of human history).

Although couched in language attempting to be generic, the Governor of Kentucky has threatened to record license plate information of people at mass gatherings, run the information, and force the owners of those vehicles into a 14-day at home quarantine.

I get the logic of it.  But he’s crossed the line.  Why does it cross the line?

He states that people cannot gather in one building, but that’s patently false according to the Executive Order he issued last month.  People are regularly going into singular buildings together to shop for food and other necessities of life.  He’s making a specific threat against exercising our freedom of religion and that’s a very dangerous step to take.  His statement doesn’t take into account any steps a church – like a grocery store – might take to minimize risk of cross-contamination through social distancing and sanitary practices like wiping down doors and other points of common contact.

If I feel like I need to go to the grocery store because I need more food in the house, there isn’t a government agent quantifying the amount of food actually in my house and then either permitting or denying my desire to get more food.  I have a felt need and I’m free to fulfill that felt need, certainly with the understanding that the places I might go to obtain that food are working to mitigate the risk of either me infecting other people or me becoming infected by others tending to their needs.

Religious liberty is the same thing.  Whereas the government might be able to force grocery stores to only deliver food via phone orders rather than allowing people inside, I’m Constitutionally granted the right to freedom of worship.  And while the Governor of Kentucky and other people might not perceive that as a need on the level of clean food and water, it’s actually a deeper and more fundamental need.  My faith transcends my prosperity, my health, and any other issue in life I might be facing.  It is the core of who I am as a human being.  Whether you agree with that or not is secondary – I have a Constitutional guarantee that I am free to exercise my religious faith.

And while I might agree to forego the full exercise of my religious freedom for a period of time, as the vast majority of faith-groups and congregations are doing right now, to specifically target one particular faith group on one particular holy weekend and threaten to penalize them for the exercise of their faith without regard to any systems that might be in place to exercise that faith as safely as possible – or at least as safely as going to the grocery store – is crossing the line.

I’ve been impressed at how cautious officials have been – up until now – to not attempt singling out religious organizations or gatherings for special mention.  I believe this is in deference – grudgingly or otherwise – to the very real Constitutional issues of directly ordering the shuttering of houses of worship instead of calling on the faithful – as with all other citizens – to limit their activities on behalf of the greater good.  The argument of the greater good could be misused, of course, but so far I don’t feel it has (and certainly many,many other religious leaders agree with that assessment).

I hope the Governor of Kentucky is challenged on this.  Not necessarily with civil disobedience but legally, and forced to retract his statement and issue an apology.  I have no doubt his intentions are good.  But unfortunately, as history shows, good intentions are frequently hijacked by those with less good intentions.

 

 

Juggling Hats

April 9, 2020

There is no shortage of weirdness these days going around as people try to adjust.  Who and what is essential, and what does that make the rest of us?  How do we adjust to sheltering in place and social distancing?  How many people were essentially doing those things before all the madness, before there were names for these things and we simply had to call them isolation and loneliness?

Who and what are we when we aren’t allowed to be around other people?  Difficult questions to answer both privately and professionally.

But there are opportunities as patterns and routines and expectations are disrupted.  The opportunities aren’t necessarily good or bad per se, they just are what they are – something out of the ordinary.  We can step into them and see where they lead us or we can fixate simply on what we don’t have and can’t do and be.

So it is that on Maunday Thursday I would normally be leading my congregation in worship and remembrance, in celebration as well as somber reflection.  But we’re all sheltering in place and isolating ourselves socially.  Separated by a modicum of prudence and perhaps an overabundance of worry.  I can’t be and do who and what I would normally be and do on this night, but it isn’t that I don’t have other roles to fulfill, other hats I could be wearing when my pastor-leading-worship hat must be set aside for a time.

So it is that I could wear my father hat tonight.  My head-of-the-family hat.  Hats that sometimes have to be set aside to wear the pastor hat, just as for other guys they’re set aside for their engineer hat or their IT-professional hat or whatever particular hat they need to wear at times.  Some hats can be set aside at 5:00 pm and other hats keep unusual hours, and my hat is one of those.  But tonight I can wear my father hat instead, and lead my family in a favorite tradition of ours but one that’s difficult to keep up on because it conflicts with my pastoring duties, and that’s celebrating a Seder meal together.

I got to lead my family and a few friends through a ritual that dates back hundreds and more  likely thousands of years.  Roughly 3500 years or so, though we can’t know for certain if it was observed the same way through all of that time or not.  A ritual and a meal celebrating God’s deliverance of his people from death and slavery and oppressors.  A ritual and a meal transformed roughly 2000 years ago by an intinerant Jewish teacher who also claimed to be the divine Son of God who would provide forgiveness for the sins of the world, deliverance from death and sin and an ancient enemy through his own death and resurrection.  A death and resurrection historically attested  to by multiple eye-witnesses.

It was a blessing to recite the Haggadah again, to move  through the texts of Scripture telling the story of God freeing his people, and knowing that freedom is extended to myself and my family because of Jesus of Nazareth.  A blessing to taste once again the unleavened bread and the charoset, the bitter herb dipped in salt water.  To raise the cups of wine, remembering how Jesus participated in three of the four, while promising He would not drink the fourth and final cup of the Passover celebration until we drink it with him after the Last Day.  A blessing to hear my children participate, to tell the story, both the very old story of deliverance from Egypt, as well as the old, old story of Jesus and his love.

I’m not sure when we’ll be able to celebrate this as a family again.  My children now older and on the cusp of adulthood and whatever that brings them.  My pastor-leading-worship hat likely to be back in place next year.  But I’m grateful for this opportunity in the midst of craziness.

 

 

Book Review: The Spiritually Vibrant Home

April 8, 2020

The Spiritually Vibrant Home: The Power of Messy Prayers, Loud Tables and Open Doors by Don Everts

This is the second book related to an original spark of interest in possible discipleship materials.  The first book I reviewed here, and is mostly raw statistical charts with some basic explanation.  I had expected this book to be more application and it’s not.  Whereas the first book had more charts than explanation, this book has more explanation than charts.  It’s a further distillation of survey data and Scripture, wrapped in the kind of anecdotal asides and examples that seem ubiquitous these days (probably because they’re helpful to a lot of people).

Everts distills the survey data of 2400-some serious Christian households into three major areas that are hallmarks of a spiritually vibrant home.  Messy prayers is his term for devotional  and prayer practices as well as spending time together between the members of a household.  Loud tables has to do with spiritual conversations that occur within a household, and open doors has to do with hospitality and the presence of people who don’t live in the house on a regular basis.

So I was disappointed with this book only because I expected it to be the application part and it’s not.  There are some questions dispersed throughout to stimulate reflection and conversation, and he does include some practical tips at the end of each of the three major sections to assist people in intentionally exercising these three areas, but that’s about it.  Having just read the more data-oriented publication, this is mostly a rehash of that data.

My question at this point is whether I require or encourage my members to read this as the first step of a discipling program, laying the groundwork for the  application to follow.  Part of me likes the idea and part of me suspects it isn’t really necessary.  Some folks will be interested in the data that undergirds the premises, but I think the more important issue is that the data reflects what Scripture already leads us towards.  For me, the data is only useful insofar as it demonstrates that we should take Scripture more seriously when it talks to us or describes how faithful households interact.

Next up is to review the actual application materials – the materials my congregants would be using and working through likely in small groups as they digest what changes they might make in their lives in order to grow in these three areas.

Curiouser and Pricier

April 7, 2020

If it seems as though some things have gotten more expensive over the years, even taking inflation into account, you’re not wrong.  This graph tracks the price of various things as compared with wages over the past 30 years.

I find it interesting that the two things that have increased most dramatically in cost are things backed by government money.  Inexpensive and these days nearly ubiquitous government student loans, and now healthcare backed by insurance which now is mandatory.  Sort of.  Kind of.  Maybe.  Obviously, as the graph indicates, government backing isn’t necessarily causative of the rise in health care costs, since Obamacare is a relatively recent thing and doesn’t seem to have driven costs up at a higher rate than previous years.

One thing that surprised me was the relative cost of new cars has only gone up by 18%.  Seems like a typical new car is a lot pricier today than it was 30 years ago, even considering inflation.

 

St. COVID’s Day

April 6, 2020

March 17th.  St. Patrick’s Day.  This was the first year the BCA moved the annual world tournament from July to March.  The first year as well that my teammates were all able to attend, and so the first time we’d be competing as a team in several years.  We’ve been anticipating this time for months, saving and preparing.

I imagined St. Patrick’s Day in Vegas to be something certainly worth observing.  In a city so  obsessed with consumption and excess, I was certain there would be plenty of good people-watching to be done.  And of course, a few Irish whiskeys along the way perhaps.  But not too many, as the team competition would be starting the next morning and we would want to be sharp and ready for the the already formidable task of having to start shooting pool at 9 am instead of in the late afternoon or evening as most of us were more  used to.

But instead, as the sun was going down over the Nevada desert I was hightailing it out of Las Vegas instead of celebrating.  The team event was cancelled as of Sunday evening.  We had remained in Vegas through Tuesday for my teammate who was still competing in the individual’s tournament (and ended up winning 3rd place in his division – not bad being able to say you’re the third best player in your division in the world!).  But as of 5 pm or so he had finished, gotten his check, had his picture taken, and it was time to leave.

I drove up to Vegas the previous week alone, knowing I’d be driving two teammates and their gear back.  But now I was also driving our league president and his wife back.  The hotels were shutting down and kicking everyone out.  Rather than wait another day for their flight back to Santa Barbara they squeezed into my SUV and I used my Tetris skills to fit their gear in as well.  It was a cozy bunch headed into the sunset.

We were maybe half an hour out of town when the classic rock station interrupted their playlist for a live broadcast from the governor of Nevada.  For the next 20 minutes or so we listened to him talk about what the state of Nevada would be doing immediately to respond to the threat of COVID-19.  Yes, the hotels would be shut down by noon the next day.  All gaming machines in the state would be turned off in a matter of hours at midnight.  People were being ordered to stay at home as much as possible.  It was clear an entire state was essentially closing, hunkering down and hoping that by doing so the spread of COVID-19 would be slowed, and fewer people would get sick and die from it.

We sat in stunned silence.

Good zombie movies often center around an unlikely collection of people forced to work together to survive.  That’s all well and good for a movie, but as we raced towards the sinking sun I couldn’t  help but think that this isn’t the group of people I would have hoped to be my apocalypse survival squad.  Not that there weren’t some good skill sets here.  Our league president served in the US Navy.  One of my teammates was good with his hands.  Another had experience in caring for people with disabilities.  It was a good, gritty crew to some extent.  But I couldn’t help but lament, as we drove by mostly empty gas stations and restaurants and Motel 6’s with their lights turned off that I would have preferred to be facing the apocalypse with my family, even if we weren’t quite as gritty and our survival chances might not be as good.

That ride, and listening to the speech from the governor is likely something I’ll never forget.  Unlike any experience in my life.  Unlike 9/11.  Unlike housing busts and recessions, presidential assassination attempts or even the vague background threat of nuclear war as a child and young adult.  This was something different.

Three weeks later it remains something fundamentally different.  How long can a country shut down?  How long are people expected to shelter in place and avoid one another?  What are the long-term costs to our country not just economically but socially and politically?  We don’t have any road maps for these sorts of considerations.  As competing models and evolving models of how the infection will play out in our country shift and change, something seems clear.

COVID-19 will have to be a pretty big deal.  If it turns out to be a smaller issue than anticipated, if it turns out to have the overall impact of a really bad flu season, there’s going to be hell to pay.  Or at least there should be.  There will need to be some very specific repercussions against a government ordering people to shut their businesses down and destroy their livelihoods rather than guiding people but allowing them to make decisions that seem to make sense.

Either COVID-19 is devastating to our nation as an actual health crisis, or it will be devastating to our political structure and the people who sacrificed untold small businesses out of fear or paranoia.  It’s possible that both things could happen, though I pray not.  But understanding whether COVID-19 is ultimately dangerous enough to very possibly destroy an entire economic and political system is something we aren’t going to know until after the fact.

It’s popular to compare COVID-19 to the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918-1920.  The Spanish flu killed 675,000 Americans in less than two years.  We’re currently at not quite 13,000 deaths.  This is, of course tragic, but also confusing, as an undetermined number of deaths attributed to COVID-19 are also strongly related to underlying and pre-existing health conditions.  At the same time, there have been an estimated 24,000 deaths from the flu through the end of March, and I assume that some number of  those deaths also involve compromised health situations.  Depending on what news reports you choose to believe, we may already be seeing the COVID-19 infection rate slowing in the US.

It will be painful and fascinating in the coming years to understand better whether we reacted appropriately to COVID-19 or not.  Whether the economic and political damage incurred is something we can recover from or will lead us into new economic and political realities couldn’t  have foreseen.  Most zombie movies never play out the long game of community and state and nation and world rebuilding.  Nobody has the attention span for that.  Or  at least, we didn’t used to.

Hopefully we do now.  Because we’re all in this together, an unlikely group of people thrust together and required to work together to survive.  I pray we’re up  to the task, and careful about the precedents that are knowingly or unknowingly being set right now.  I hope our skills, Tetris or otherwise, are up to the task.  And I hope people are willing to work together towards these ends rather than continuing to isolate and scream at one another through their face masks and social media masks.  There are challenges ahead but also opportunities, if we are wise enough to discern enough and brave enough to take them.  Hopefully the darkest part of this night-desert-drive is over, and we’ll be seeing the sun coming up shortly.