Archive for August, 2020

Watch Lists

August 17, 2020

Governor Newsom of California introduced the idea of a county watchlist in mid-July as he ordered reimplementation of some of the restrictions placed on the state as a whole in mid-March at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. In July, it was announced that rather than state-wide restrictions, restrictions would be on a county-by-county basis. The six criteria by which counties would be evaluated are:

  • Are more than 150 COVID-19 tests per day per 100,0000 residents being administered? If yes, this is bad. If no, this is good.
  • Are there more than 100 new cases reported per 100,000 residents over the past 14 days? If so, this is bad. If the numbers are lower, this is good.
  • Are there more than 25 new cases per 100,000 residents, or more than an 8% positivity rate on on tests administered? No is good, yes is bad.
  • Has there been a 10% or greater increase in COVID-19 hospitalized patients over the past three days? No is good, yes is bad.
  • Are Intensive Care Units at 80% capacity or more? Yes is bad, no is good.
  • Are 75% or more of available ventilators being utilized? No is good, yes is bad.

Some of these criteria seem straightforward and others are somewhat nebulous. How many ventilators does my county have? How many could it obtain if needed? Who determines how many tests are administered and on what basis? My county is currently administering more than 200 tests per day on average, as of yesterday. Who decides that and on what basis? The other area of failure for my county is the cases reported per 100,000 residents a day. We’re at ~150 new cases per 100,000.

But what does this mean? Are there more than 150 new cases of active COVID-19 cases being discovered per day? Again, according the data provided on a daily basis from our County Public Health Department, no. Tests are administered, large numbers of cases are added to the reported total, but the number of actively infected people has remained constant or decreased since mid-July. Here are the numbers of ACTIVE COVID-19 CASES in our county, as gleaned from the e-mails Public Health sends out:

  • July 15 – 334
  • July 16 – 414
  • July 17 – 401
  • July 20 – 274
  • July 21 – 295
  • July 22 – 350
  • July 23 – 361
  • July 24 – 369
  • July 27 – 308
  • July 28 – 333
  • July 30 – 290
  • July 31 – 249
  • August 4 – 227
  • August 6 – 205
  • August 7 – 198
  • August 10 – 306
  • August 12 – 310
  • August 14 – 290
  • August 17 – 278

Our County reached a peak level of infections in late July, and has remained consistently well below that peak ever since, despite a slight spike the second week of August. An average rate of 304 cases per provided data point from the County. The State of California claims our infection rate per 100,000 residents is just over 150. But that apparently is a measure of all positive test results rather than active, current infections. Why this is the measure I don’t understand, frankly, other than that it’s an attempt to mitigate obvious errors in reporting and other mistakes human beings make all the time, and which California in particular has had a good share of in the past few months, culminating in the resignation of the state’s highest public health official.

Still problematic to me that you would shutter entire industries, curtail Constitutional rights all for an infection that on average over the last month has affected roughly 7% of our county population and resulted in only 80 deaths over the past five months.

Reading Ramblings – August 23, 2020

August 16, 2020

Reading Ramblings

Date: 12th Sunday after Pentecost – August 23, 2020

Texts: Isaiah 51:1-6; Psalm 138; Romans 11:33-12:8; Matthew 16:13-20

Context: Finding a common theme in the readings today may seem challenging at first. Yet there is a common thread (except in the Epistle, which we don’t expect this time of year since it’s not being intentionally matched to the other readings) of the agency of God. God as the primary actor in creation and the Word as opposed to us. We constantly have to resist the natural urge to see Scripture primarily about us in terms of what we do and instead see it as what God does on our behalf, from our very creation to our salvation and even the life of sanctification.

Isaiah 51:1-6 – Those who pursue righteousness (v.1) are likely to be understood in contrast to those who have opted for idolatry, discussed at the end of Chapter 50. Chapter 51 begins a section of five chapters emphasizing how God will deliver Israel through a new exodus and a Suffering Servant. But there are hints that this is not simply a return from exile in Babylon but something far greater, evidenced by the reference to Eden (v.3). But notice also the exclusive focus on God’s action. God will act on behalf of his people, even though some are being unfaithful. But to those who rely on God, they should trust and look to God for deliverance. After all, God took Abraham and Sarah, childless and aged, and created a mighty nation and people from them. Their lack of children likely helps contextualize the references to barrenness and wastelands in v.3, and just as Abraham and Sarah were joyous to finally have a child of their own, so God’s people will also be joyous when God returns them to his land. Verse 4 continues the contrast between the false light of idolatry at the end of Chapter 50 and the true light of God’s justice, a law that is firm and resolute. In fact, it is already in motion, and so the outcome is inevitable and trustworthy (note the present-tense language in vs.5-6).

Psalm 138 – The cause for thanksgiving in this psalm is not some personal benefit or blessing, but the activity of God whereby his name and Word are exalted and continue to go out in creation. The speaker is part of this, testifying to God’s reliability in answering when called upon (v.2). God’s faithfulness will result in his receiving glory and honor from even kings. They too will acknowledge God’s faithfulness, a faithfulness reserved not just for the mighty but for the lowly, even the speaker. This is a psalm of faith, proclaiming trust that God will continue to do what He has promised, and the speaker as well as all creation will be the beneficiaries of this faithfulness. The speaker acknowledges their identity as God’s creation, and calls on God to remain faithful and mindful of his creation and creature. This psalm is beautiful in lifting our eyes up from our own private struggles and victories by the grace of God, to the larger plan of salvation for all of creation.

Romans 11:33-12:8 – Paul breaks into a blessing of God and his inscrutable ways, far from our ability to discern or understand them. Verse 34 quotes Isaiah 40:13 and verse 35 quotes Job 41:3. God has not forgotten his chosen people, the Jews, just as God did not forget Job. But his plans for them are not ours to unravel, we are called only to give him thanks and praise. God receives the glory in all things. The end of chapter 11 seems like a natural break, allowing Paul to move on into a discussion and description of the Christian life. Verses 1-2 of Chapter 12 contribute to this impression, but perhaps given the content of vs. 3-8 we shouldn’t draw so stark a line. After all, in 11:17-27 Paul warned the Roman Gentile Christians about disdaining the Jews, which is similar to the theme of not thinking of oneself more highly than he ought to in 12:3. While Paul’s line of thought here is broader than it was in the previous chapter, there is a connection. This humility is a tangible part of the transformation Paul speaks of in v.2. We aren’t free to imagine we are being transformed when we really aren’t. Part of our transformation should be in humility towards one another, not just towards God. This humility is grounded in recognizing how God works through different people and different giftings. Coming to value the giftings of others that are different from our own is one means towards a greater humility. Figuring out how to serve based on our gifts, and allowing others to serve based on their gifts is a tangible way of keeping perspective on ourselves as well as others, leading to greater harmony in the body of Christ and less divisive internal emotions and competitive or jealous motivations.

Matthew 16:13-20 – Jesus has been performing miracles since Chapter 8 of Matthew’s gospel. It is reasonable to expect that some of the religious leaders from Jerusalem saw these miracles themselves, yet still expect Jesus to do additional or more impressive things in Chapter 16. They reject the miracles they have seen as evidence of Jesus’ identity and demand more. Now Jesus asks his disciples for their assessment of who He is. The crowds have many ideas about Jesus but his disciples have seen and experienced and heard more of Jesus than anyone else. Based on their experiences thus far, who do these relatively unlearned and common men declare Jesus to be? Peter’s confession is bold. To assert Jesus truly is the Messiah, and no less than the Son of God incarnate was a bold step of faith, and Peter is to be commended for seeing in Jesus the promises he has heard about in the synagogue and Scripture readings all his life.

Beginning with that simple statement of faith, and centered on the content of that statement of faith the Church is formed. Not by Peter or the disciples, but rather through and with and on them Jesus will establish his Church. This will eventually become something the disciples were unable to even conceive of in the moment, an institution spanning the earth and history, and leaving behind while carrying with it elements of the synagogue system and Temple worship they presumed to be the correct and eternal form of worship. Jesus will build, and Jesus will give the keys to the kingdom.

What are these keys? Traditionally these are understood as Jesus defines them here – the means of forgiveness. The Church is the only institution on earth charged with the forgiveness of sins or the withholding of forgiveness when someone is not repentant. And it is only through repentance and the forgiveness of sins that we are made right with God the Father once again. It is only through Jesus’ death and resurrection that these keys can even exist for him to convey to his Church.

The Church does not have exclusive control over these keys, but the Church is to wield these keys in proclaiming the Gospel, calling people to repentance and then assuring them of the forgiveness of their sins in Jesus Christ, who alone owns and controls the keys. The Church adds nothing to these keys (as the medieval Roman Catholic Church mistakenly asserted) and the Church dare not withhold the full power of these keys (as many watered-down Christian ‘churches’ are inclined to do so today to remain relevant or viable to an increasingly fickle population). It is only in acknowledging our sin and need for forgiveness and salvation that these very things we most need and can never produce on our own are freely extended to us by God the Holy Spirit through faith in God the Son, Jesus the Christ.

Obviously Satan wants this authority thwarted, and has worked tirelessly for 2000 years to discredit and undermine or silence through force the Church and the keys she wields. But Satan will never succeed in fully silencing or discrediting that Good News that Jesus truly is the Son of the living God come into our world to bear the penalty of our sin on his own sinless shoulders.

Book Review: Martin Luther

August 11, 2020

Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World

by Eric Metaxas

Metaxas is a skilled writer, able to communicate clearly and maintain reader interest while plowing through the details of a person’s life. He demonstrated his skill in this to me first with his book on Bonhoeffer, and this biography of Luther doesn’t disappoint either even if it is more limited in depth due to the greater distance in time between Metaxas and Luther.

Although diehard Luther scholars will likely see this book as too cursory an overview, Metaxas does an admirable job of sketching Luther’s life not simply in terms of timeline and biographical details but also in contextualizing the events for the reader to better appreciate their impact at the time as well as on history ever since. Metaxas allows the Luther neophyte to glimpse the startling impact this monk had on Western Civilization in general as well as the Church. In doing so Metaxas adds to the Luther corpus that moves Luther from being sidelined as of importance only to the Church and Church history and alongside secular historical figures who also impacted Western civilization in profound ways.

Metaxas weaves excerpts from Luther’s writings and contemporaries of Luther seamlessly into the narrative, and his extensive citing or referencing of other Luther scholars demonstrates the seriousness of his own research into those who have undertaken similar works before him. His references are never obstacles to the flow of his narrative, and you can easily ignore the extensive footnotes in the back of the book if you’re so inclined.

My only criticism is that at the end of the book, as Metaxas moves from biography to interpretation of Luther’s larger legacy, the author briefly confuses his own ideas about Christians and Christianity in the West today with Luther’s actual thoughts on the subject, particularly on the issue of obedience even to injustice or unfair rulers. Metaxas’ closing arguments sound as though Luther endorsed rising up against unfair rulers when, as Metaxas clearly demonstrated earlier in his book, this was exactly the opposite of what Luther argued.

Clearly the idea of enduring suffering and injustice is so difficult to Western (and particularly American) minds that even a great biographer like Metaxas can momentarily forget how counter-cultural the call to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:43-45) is.

Luther’s great witness was his willingness to suffer death if necessary in defense of the truth of God’s Word. He never considered himself above the temporal law but always subject to it. This further underscores the miraculous confluence of political and economic and religious currents orchestrated by God the Holy Spirit that Luther and the Gospel he set free once again might endure.

Book Review: The KGB’s Most Wanted

August 10, 2020

The KGB’s Most Wanted: The Story of Joseph Bondarenko, Russian Evangelist by Joseph Bondarenko

This was gifted to me by a parishioner who heard the author speak recently. The book is a powerful auto-biography of Bondarenko’s treatment in the former Soviet Union because of his faith. He describes things in a simple, relatable way that is easy to understand. His main purpose seems to be detailing events as he remembers them, rather than trying to impose any larger meaning on the events beyond the meaning given to us in Scripture of God’s mysterious ways of working. Bondarenko chooses to focus not on the barbarism of his jailers or the atheistic Communist systems, but rather on how God the Holy Spirit was always present and at work in even the worst of circumstances and situations, not just preserving Bondarenko’s life but leading others to or back to faith.

Bondarenko’s humility as well as his great faith in God is far more inspiring than the mistreatment he suffered by a system determined to break him and make an example of him. It isn’t that Bondarenko claims any great power for himself – he regularly gives all of the credit to God for protecting and sustaining him. Much as God defeated the efforts of Pharaoh in the Exodus story, God thwarts the intentions of various levels of Communist officials, regularly demonstrating his power through and despite Bondarenko’s weakness. Rather than breaking Bondarenko’s faith, others around him are brought to faith.

Reading Ramblings – August 16, 2020

August 9, 2020

Reading Ramblings

Date: Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost ~ August 16, 2020

Texts: Isaiah 56:1, 6-8; Psalm 67; Romans 11:1-2a, 13-15, 28-32; Matthew 15:21-28

Context: Who are the promises of God for? Is the Gospel a lie – promising the grace and forgiveness of God but withholding it just because you aren’t part of a select group of recipients? Do our sinful mechanisms of distinction and division apply to the kingdom of God? The readings today are strong affirmations of the richness of God’s promises to all who hear and trust in them. In these days of divisiveness and separation, the Word of God comes to draw people together through Jesus Christ by the power of God the Holy Spirit. The Church has good news to share, and that good news is offered freely and equally to everyone by God the Holy Spirit.

Isaiah 56:1, 6-8 – The offers of God seem too good to be true, as the reading from Isaiah this week and two weeks ago make clear. Would God offer so much to us, who have nothing to offer him in return? Yes. But perhaps God’s offer is limited in scope, available for a limited time only, to the first 144,000 callers? No. God’s gifts extend to all who will take him at his word. Those outside the covenant promises made to the children of Israel via Moses at Mt. Sinai 3500 years ago? God still desires them to be in proper relationship to him, adopted into his people by faith instead of genetics. The selected portions of Isaiah 56 for this week emphasize the foreigner, the one who was not part of God’s people in terms of being a descendant of Abraham, but who had adopted the life of faith of the Israelites as their own. The other group mentioned here but excluded from the reading is the eunuch, a castrated man. This is an ancient practice throughout much of the Near East and other places in the world, but is problematic in terms of God’s people. Deuteronomy 23:1 says eunuchs are not permitted to participate in worship of God. But this prohibition should not be confused with whether they are recipients of the promises of God! In our day of divisions between us and them, foreigners and citizens, as well as various races, it is the joyous privilege of the people of God to proclaim the good news of God in Jesus Christ to everyone, knowing that all are welcome to trust in the promises of God!

Psalm 67 – This psalm utilizes the opening of the Aaronic blessing (Numbers 6:24-26) in a poetic fashion, asserting that the blessings of the Lord are never simply for personal enjoyment but towards the greater end that God’s way and will would be known and received throughout the world. As God blesses his people, this should be a testimony to others of the identity and goodness of God, leading them to accept him and participate in those blessings towards the end that God is praised throughout the peoples. As we pray for God’s blessings we should never see them as an end in and of themselves, but always part and parcel of God’s overarching plan of salvation at loose in the world. In our pluralistic culture, it is important for the people of God to hold fast to the promise that God is real, and only in God can the divisions and hurts of our world be hurt. God’s justice is true and real justice, over and opposed to any other kind of justice which will ultimately be shown to be injustice. The psalm ends with the affirmation that even as we pray for the blessings of God, we have already and are already receiving his blessings!

Romans 11:1-2a, 13-15, 28-32 – Paul concludes his excursis on how it is the Jews could reject Jesus as the Messiah despite the manifest preparations provided by God himself in his Word. And Paul is likely addressing ideas already circulating that will continue to circulate down to the current day among some Christians – ideas such as that God has rejected the Jewish people for crucifying the Son of God, or that the Jews deserve punishment for their rejection of Jesus. Paul’s words here should dispel any such notions and caution directly against them. God has not rejected the Jewish people, else Paul himself (not to mention the apostles and the bulk of the early Church) would not have received faith in Jesus Christ via the Holy Spirit. Rather, Paul is committed to never abandoning his hope of the salvation of the Jews, and those who come to faith as Gentiles should be of the same mind and heart. If the Jews in rejecting the Messiah provided the means by which the Son of God would be lifted up in death and resurrection to provide reconciliation to all people, imagine the great blessings to all people should the Jewish people come to faith in this crucified Messiah! God has not abandoned his Chosen People, though they have abandoned his gracious gift in the Incarnate Son of God. Christians should be cautious in what we presume regarding God’s intentions towards the Jewish people, trusting that the God who could bring us to salvation in Jesus Christ will not default on his promises to his Chosen People. Those who reject Christ (Jew and Gentile) are alike in their sin, and equally qualified to receive forgiveness in their repentance.

Matthew 15:21-28 – Our third miracle Gospel in a row (feeding the 5000, walking on water) is one of the more disturbing and confusing of Jesus’ miracles. Rather than rejoice that God would grant healing to this woman’s daughter, despite the fact this woman and her daughter not only were not Jewish but probably were not worshipers of God, we trip over the fact Jesus is unwilling at first to grant the woman’s request. In our age of universalism, often the argument is made that any good person is deserving of the riches of God’s grace. Presumed in this argument is that we can define what good means rather than God. But such assertions have no Biblical basis, and Jesus’ interactions with this woman here remind us of this. Faith in Jesus Christ is the means of salvation. But God pours out his blessings on all people, both those in the faith and those outside of it, and those blessings are more than just the generics of sun and rain and food and air, but extends even to answering prayers, even when those prayers are not necessarily grounded in the firmest of faith. This woman’s trust that the God the Hebrews worship should be more than generous enough to afford this small healing is impressive even if it isn’t saving faith.

This account stands against all those who would argue that the key to having your prayers answered is to have enough faith. Against all those who would argue that healing is withheld in any given situation because the person sick – or those around the person who is sick – don’t trust God enough. God is not limited by our faith. Nor does He ever claim that his blessings are only for his faithful, though his faithful should expect to see an abundance of them!

Thus we are not only free as the people of God to pray for those who are not Christians, we should! God loves them, even if they don’t know this or accept it yet. And as God’s blessings to his own people are a witness to others, so much more are the blessings of God an invitation to the unfaithful into the fullness of his generosity, grace and forgiveness. We should be cautioned by the callousness of Jesus’ disciples who were so quick to dismiss her. She didn’t fit into their ideas of what this time away in a foreign city was for, and she certainly didn’t fit into their ideas of who should benefit from Jesus’ presence. But just as in the feeding of the 5000 in Matthew 14, Jesus is willing to set aside his hoped for time of respite in order to tend to the needs of God’s creation. And Jesus doesn’t question motives but sees each person as a child of God – whether that person knows themselves as such or lives their lives as such. The blessings of God in this life should not be mistaken for his gift of salvation, but like all of God’s gifts point towards the greater blessing offered to us in the death and resurrection of God’s Son, Jesus the Christ.

Pool Hall – Romine’s High Pockets, Milwaukee, WI

August 7, 2020

This is a great pool. Lots of tables ranging from bar-boxes to nine footers as well as some three-cushion tables. There’s a massive bar and restaurant-style seating area as they have a full menu that includes pizza and Mexican food. This is clearly the biggest place to shoot pool close to Milwaukee (it’s a bit south), and it’s conducive to both family fun as well as serious shooters.

I would definitely come back to shoot here again, and highly recommend it to both casual and serious players.

Pushing Preferences

August 5, 2020

What you believe matters. And the basis for what you believe matters as well. While evangelical Christianity has done a lot of damage to Biblical Christian faith in divorcing faith and belief from the strong anchors of Biblical accuracy as borne out through historical and archaeological discoveries, certainly those critical of the Bible or the Church have launched their own attacks.

Consider the Harvard professor claiming to have proof that Jesus was married, in the form of a small piece of Coptic writing. While the story made a splash in 2012, very little attention has been paid to how the story ultimately played out. This Wall Street Journal review rectifies this somewhat, reviewing Veritas, a book that chronicles how the professor was fooled – or was complicit in fooling others – with the sketchy claims of an even sketchier source for the apparently ancient writing. It appears her commitment to certain ideological ideas might have caused her to be remiss in her scholastic research rigor, ultimately damaging or destroying her career.

What you believe matters, as does the basis of your belief. What do you believe in? And based on what?