Fear and Science

December 17, 2021

As another example of how nearly every media source – including science-based sources – utilizes fear to capture our attention, I offer this gem from National Geographic:

The Universe Is Expanding Faster Than It Should Be

Say what?

No, if the universe is expanding it is expanding at whatever rate it expands at. But the headline makes it sound like there’s a problem – a danger even! Oh my, what are we to do about this? How are we to face this potential nightmare on top of Covid and the general decay of our culture and society?

Sheesh.

The headline should read something along the lines of:

Current Scientific Models Inaccurate In Predicting Universal Rate of Expansion

The problem isn’t the universe, the problem is our scientific models are not accurate or complete. It isn’t that the universe is misbehaving somehow, but rather our knowledge is incomplete. That would allow people to sleep better at night, and remind us that as wonderful as science can be, it is not perfect or complete.

But I suppose that sort of statement is fear-inducing to folks who place their sense of well-being in scientific certainty and accuracy.

Problematic Cuteness

December 16, 2021

I’m not immune to cuteness. Certainly there’s no lack of it available on the Internet. Perhaps you watched this little video as well. Cuteness a-plenty. And the first few times I watched it I chuckled. He is, certainly as the headline captures, a cheeky lad.

But then I kept thinking about it. And little by little I viewed it less than cute and more as problematic.

This isn’t a kid’s spontaneous exuberance. This isn’t a burst of spontaneity. This was planned. And I’m pretty positive the kid didn’t plan it all on his own.

There’s no hesitation. No uncertainty. No getting star-struck by the size of the arena or the lights. No wavering when being pursued. There’s an accomplice – assisting in either distraction or perhaps as an extra pair of hands to grab the ball initially or pass off to at the last minute. This was a pretty well-orchestrated heist.

And on its own there’s still a certain cuteness to it. It’s just a one-off event, after all. It’s not like they don’t have more game balls. But what does it teach us? What if it wasn’t a one-off but this happened in games and matches everywhere, all the time? I mean, beyond the fact that at some point the game balls would become more worthless because everybody already had one, what would this bring us to? The assumption that games should be regularly interrupted by the shenanigans of fans? What if they started swiping other things instead of just game balls?

All of this sounds pretty Grinch-y, but it just points out to me the double-standard we continue to create for young folks and reinforce in older folks. On the one hand we desperately want people to play by the rules and be good neighbors and co-workers and citizens and fans. On the other hand, we actively applaud those who flout the rules. This sets up an eventual collapse of order. You can’t tell kids in school to obey the rules and then act shocked when they don’t obey them because they’re being rewarded for breaking the rules.

Additionally there’s the sticky wicket of not being able to differentiate between which rules are acceptable to be broken and those that must not be broken. It’s ok to steal game balls but not ok to shoot up schools. Seems like a no-brainer, but obviously people are struggling with that differentiation. Or it’s ok to steal game balls but it’s not ok to default on legal and financial obligations you’ve sworn to uphold.

In which case you get articles like this (warning – profanity ahead) not explicitly telling people not to default on their student loans, but warning them there could be long-term repercussions beyond just freeing up short-term cash flow. Since they weren’t equipped by our massive and impressive educational system to realize that there are repercussions sometimes in going to college, and that loans need to be repaid. Obviously we can’t have everyone defaulting on their loans, can we? Even if they defaulters are cute. And yet when you break free morality and virtue from any comprehensive mooring, what else should you expect? If there isn’t a larger narrative wherein morals and virtue play important roles, why just pretend they’re important if you really believe there’s nothing bigger or greater than the moment or the span of this short life?

Kids aren’t stupid. They figure out pretty quickly that rules are arbitrary. And this further reinforces the larger cultural narrative that nothing has any real meaning anyway. We’re all just cosmic burps, accidents of gasses and molecules with no past greater than human desire and no future beyond the wall of death and no greater value in between than what we can beg, borrow or steal. We sit around and wring our hands about why the kids aren’t all right. More likely we just don’t want to acknowledge what we’re lacking. Contextualization. Meaning. Purpose. Not pretend stuff we make up for ourselves, but something rock-solid that carries us from the dawn of creation to the eternity after our deaths. Nothing short of this kind of meta-narrative can bear the weight of our personal disappointments and losses in this life, the voluntary (or involuntary) restraint of our desires and rages.

I’d have much preferred the cheeky lad to be met by parents who made him give the ball back, but I’m betting the parents are likely the ones who helped him plan it. Either actively with their presence or through their absence during his planning with others. It would ultimately have been not only cute but also important to have a morality and virtue greater than cuteness showcased. And I can quietly hope that actually happened. But you’re certainly not likely to see it filmed and going viral on the Internet.

The rod and reproof bring wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother. Proverbs 29:15

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Proverbs 1:7

Where Is the Spotlight?

December 14, 2021

I was sitting around the other night with a group of folks, all church-going Christians. All Lutherans, even. And they started telling a story. This story involved an associate pastor at their church – a very large, successful church by contemporary church standards. This associate pastor was a gifted preacher and teacher and also had a gift for working with young people. During his time with the congregation, focused on outreach to youth, large numbers of youth were attending the various programs offered by the church. Some of them were bringing family members as well. All seemed good and wonderful.

Then this pastor took a Call (a job offer of sorts, in our vernacular) to another congregation in another state. While it wasn’t stated explicitly, the implied result is that the youth attendance dropped dramatically. And now the congregation was in the position of determining what sort of person they ought to Call as their next associate pastor. And the consensus of the folks gathered there was that they needed someone very charismatic who could once again be a draw to youth.

Not an atypical story by any means. I’ve heard variations on this story in recent years. A beloved pastor retires and through careful planning and a five-year transition plan, leaves the congregation in the hands of a known and vetted pastor. And yet within a short span of time the congregation begins to shrivel and die. Vibrancy disappears. The new pastor isn’t this or that. The new pastor doesn’t have the same gifts as the older, retired, beloved pastor.

These aren’t congregations that I would imagine to be flimsy in any sense of the word. I know some of these pastors personally. I know their depth of character, their lives of faith, their excellent knowledge of the Word of God and their understanding of what the Church is as the Body of Christ. Yet somehow, when they retire – sometimes after decades of service to that congregation – the congregation begins within just a short time to shrink and shrivel.

What is the Church? What does it mean to be part of the Church and more specifically part of a congregation, one small piece of the Body of Christ? What does that entail? Where is the spotlight? I ask that question not as a condemnation of these retired pastors, as though they intentionally sought to be the center of the life of the Church. They weren’t and aren’t. They worked hard to emphasize discipleship and to instill in people an understanding of what the Church is, an understanding that goes back to 1 Corinthians and St. Paul. An understanding that the particular pastor is not what matters. What matters is Christ. The spotlight needs to be on Jesus, not on St. Paul or this pastor or that pastor. And what is apparently happening these days is that despite pastors who recognize this and try to practice this, at the end of the day (or their service), it turns out that for their parishioners, the spotlight really was on them as the pastor. Somehow what they sought to teach and instill in their parishioners never really took hold. Or, as the parable of the sower, took hold in a rather superficial way that only lasted until the pastor retired and people were disenchanted with the replacement.

Something is missing. Something is not getting communicated. Or more accurately, something is not taking hold. As a result, the Church has a tendency to utilize worldly wisdom to determine what sort of pastor they need to have in order to remain healthy and vibrant. And yet the irony (at least in my denomination), is that the health of the Church and congregation ought to be maintained even when the pastor is less than capable. Martin Luther designed an entire teaching curriculum to assist fathers and parents to teach their children the essence of the Christian faith in case they weren’t getting it on Sunday mornings, and in the understanding that even if they were getting good preaching and teaching Sunday morning, Sunday morning wasn’t enough given the plethora of other voices and ideas encountered or dominating their lives the other six and a half days a week.

Christ is what matters. And a healthy congregation needs to recognize that the pastor’s sermon and Bible study on Sunday morning cannot bear the weight of the faith, or even the weight of holding a congregation together. The Church is where the Word and Sacraments of God are rightly received, but that narrow definition is inadequate and always has been. The closing verses of both Acts 2 and Acts 4 make it clear that the Church was more than just a once a week gathering, and that the emphasis was on Jesus and his teachings rather than the particular rhetorical or empathic gifts of the teachers.

Somehow this needs to be communicated once again, so that Christians might draw strength and nourishment from their communion with one another, focused on Christ. Not to the detriment or diminishment of corporate worship or the Office of Holy Ministry or the Sacraments. But that these things might be more rightly revered and cherished. Somehow our programs are missing this, and pastors retiring from successful decades of service are forced to watch (or hear about) how their former parish is withering away.

Thoughts?

Pool Hall – The Jointed Cue ~ Sacramento, CA

December 9, 2021

I happened to find myself near Sacramento for the second time in less than six months, definitely a record in terms of visit frequencies. This time just stopping overnight south of Sacramento in Elk Horn, home, I discovered, to The Jointed Cue which claims to be the oldest pool room in northern California. It’s good it has this claim to fame, as I confer another less pleasant one on it – the ugliest pool shirt I’ve run across in all my years of travel and this most recent couple of years of collecting.

Located on the northwest corner of Fruitridge and 24th Street, I discovered the place had only re-opened just a few weeks earlier on November 2 after nearly three years of being shuttered due to a lawsuit against the previous owners, perhaps related to an ADA issue. I was there on a Monday night and the place was packed with a beginner tournament. It’s not a small place – I counted 11 nine-foot Brunswick tables as well as two three-cushion tables. There’s a bar that served food and soft drinks when I was there, but hoped their beer and wine liquor license would be finalized just a few days after I left. I hope that came through for them!

It’s under new ownership, allegedly a coalition of long-time afficianados of the place who came together to get the financing to reopen it. With tournaments running throughout the week it looks like they stand a good chance of making it an ongoing prospect and continuing a tradition dating back to 1968.

While the play was pretty basic when I was there due to it being a tournament for beginners, it’s clearly a place where all levels of players hang out. I saw some very impressive three-cushion play and I look forward to learning more about that game in the coming months. While the area is a little rough and parking is inadequate, I’d strongly recommend this spot to anyone in the area or passing through. It’s worth the stop!

Breaking Silence

December 8, 2021

Perhaps the best way to break the long silence here is not with my words but someone else’s. Thanks to The Mockingbird for sharing this beautiful poem.

The Mercy of God

A poem by Jessica Powers, a Carmelite nun (1905-88):

I am copying down in a book from my heart’s archive
the day that I ceased to fear God with a shadowy fear.
Would you name it the day that I measured my column of virtue
and sighted through windows of merit a crown that was near?
Ah, no, it was rather the day I began to see truly
that I came forth from nothing and ever toward nothingness tend,
that the works of my hands are a foolishness wrought in the presence
of the worthiest king in a kingdom that never shall end.
I rose up from the acres of self that I tended with passion
and defended with flurries of pride:
I walked out of myself and went into the woods of God’s mercy,
and here I abide.
There is greenness and calmness and coolness,
a soft leafy covering
from judgment of sun overhead, and the hush of His peace,
and the moss of His mercy to tread.
I have nought but my will seeking God;
even love burning in me is a fragment of infinite loving
and never my own.
And I fear God no more; I go forward to wander forever
in a wilderness of His infinite mercy alone.

Lutherans in the Spotlight

November 17, 2021

Lutherans – and particularly conservative, Confessional Lutherans – don’t often make it into the public spotlight. That’s partially intentional. Still, people are noticing that our aversion to the spotlight doesn’t mean we don’t have ideas (Biblical, hopefully!) to communicate to the power-brokers and king-makers of Washington D.C. Here’s a brief spotlight on the unfortunate necessity of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod working to help shape public policy and the rule of law.

Swallowed by the Cracks

November 17, 2021

(Still a great jam all these years later.)

Unsurprisingly, being fully vaccinated (whether with Johnson & Johnson’s single shot or the two-shot program required for other vaccines) is likely going to be redefined to insist on at least an initial (and I believe eventually annual at least) booster shots. In other words, I don’t think it will be long before immunized or vaccinated status is a rolling status dependent on mandatory updates. Failure to stay up to date on boosters will kick someone into the legal status of unvaccinated.

This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone paying attention to the actual science of the vaccines and the changing understanding of how they work and more specifically, how long they work. If antibody generation wanes considerably after six months, only through additional boosters can the population hope to be protected long enough – by our current methods – for the virus to wane in prevalence and strength. Of course, since the vaccines only reduce your odds of infection and reduce the effects of infection, the virus may never really subside, a reality countries around the world are coming to grips with as they transition from pandemic footing to trying to manage the situation as endemic and ongoing, like the flu.

In the meantime, the reality of an even bigger problem will likely garner little more than passing notice by lawmakers and citizens alike. Indeed, as more and more states decriminalize not only marijuana but cocaine (and potentially other drugs), the number of people dying from drug overdoses continues to skyrocket. Just in the last 20 years we’ve surpassed the number of Covid deaths (if my math is mostly correct). That may seem like a long time but this year we just surpassed 100,000 diagnosed deaths by drug overdose, up from only 20,000 a year just 20 years ago. At this rate the potential death rate for drug overdoses could rival Covid deaths, with no magic vaccine available to slow it down.

Musicians and other celebrities continue to pass away at young ages but the role of prescription medications as contributing causes of death is ignored. Regardless of whether someone kicks the habit or not drug abuse can cause permanent damage, damage that shortens a person’s likely lifespan. Yet we continue to allow the glorification of drug use even as it continues to strangle young people at an alarming and growing rate.

What a waste. When we emerge from our government and media inflicted Covid paranoia (at least I hope people emerge!) will we rally to destroy this larger and far longer-term enemy in our midst? Or will we continue to demand increasing laxness regarding the issue of drugs in general, further contributing to mixed messages to our impressionable youth?

I was a kid when the war on drugs began, long-overdue at that point and really just at the beginning of the epidemic of harder drug use as a widespread issue. The deaths in this war far eclipse the deaths of all of our military ventures in the last 40 years and Covid – probably combined. Maybe we won’t properly start caring about it until our ICUs are overwhelmed. Then again most overdoses aren’t caught in time to attempt medical treatment so I guess that conveniently won’t be a problem.

Maybe we’ll have to wait for the cemeteries to fill up and the environmentalists to get pissed off before we recognize that legalizing for tax benefits drugs that are killing our children is not good public policy. We seem far more willing to protect the environment than our children.

Book Review – Murder on the Orient Express

November 9, 2021

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

I went through a brief stage in early adolescence of reading classic mysteries. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie were both tutors in this brief foray. It didn’t last long because I tired of the genius of the detective becoming evident only at the end of the story by the introduction of additional facts, clues, and background information I as the reader could not possibly know. I was frustrated because I wanted to solve the mysteries myself, and the authors weren’t giving me what I needed to do so.

But when I found a copy of this book at the tiny library near where we’re sojourning along with a British television adaptation of the book, I knew we had to read it as a family and then watch the film. I’m glad to say that my particular irritations of many years ago notwithstanding, we all roundly enjoyed the book as well as the movie, and had a delightful interchange comparing the two and the interpretative license the director of the film version engaged in, both for good and bad effect.

The story finds Christie’s protagonist, Belgian master detective Hercule Poirot trying to unravel a particularly complicated murder on board the said Orient Express. The ending is truly a masterful stroke of genius. The characters are wildly diverse and curious in their own right. The book is well-written, engaging without pandering. It keeps the readers involved as clues are unveiled and alibis examined.

The television version of it, a 2010 British production, does an admirable job with some interesting twists. It adds scenes and skips over others. But as a whole, the director picks up on religious themes both expressed by Christie in the book and others not in the book but created to better flesh out the character of Poirot. Performances are solid though, as is typical in most adaptations, the characters can’t possibly be given their full due in 90 minutes of film as they can in 200+ pages of text. Still, if you can find this version I’d encourage you to watch it (ideally after just having read the book!) and sit and ponder the meanings of rosaries and prayers and God that find such a central place in this adaptation.

Then drop me a line and let’s talk about it more together!

Book Review – Old Man and the Sea

November 4, 2021

Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

I’d read this back in one of my high school literature classes. It’s not a complicated little story so it wasn’t as though the intervening decades clouded the storyline or the outcome. But as part of our less-connected, wi-fi-unpredictable life for the moment reading together as a family has come to the forefront. The place we’re staying had a copy and I knew it would be good for everyone to experience it.

I like Hemingway, but his sparcity can be exhausting at times. Where Bradbury or other authors bury you in similes and metaphors and adjectives, Hemingway remains terse, no doubt a throwback to his days in journalism. The story is slow, as slow as being stuck in a boat at sea alone for days on end, trailing a line connected to a massive, unseen fish below. I would likely be tempted to tighten it up a bit, but tightening it up ruins the entire point of the story. You feel the interminableness of Santiago’s situation. You feel his hope as well as his wariness. You admire his stolidity.

His dedication is to a code of manhood rapidly being erased in a Western culture intent on desexing and unisexing everyone and everything. No doubt he is dubbed as an example of toxic masculinity in college literature classrooms on two continents. How foolish, to risk his life on such an uncertainty, against overwhelming odds. Yet Santiago’s decisions are set by larger forces than himself and he seeks only to measure his mettle against them, just as he continually measures his own pain against the pain reported of his beloved DiMaggio. Does his suffering come close? Does he measure up?

If you haven’t read this for a while go back to it. As a father of boys and young men it is helpful to show traditional masculine qualities evaporating in the world around them. Like other much longer epic works it highlights the importance of doing what you know to be right and proper despite the potential loss you may personally suffer in doing so. Some things are worth dying for. Some battles should be faced squarely that the stories may be told and passed down to younger generations who will one day have to face their own giants, whether under the waters or in the stars or in their own hometowns.

Book Review – Muslims, Christians, and Jesus

November 2, 2021

Muslims, Christians and Jesus by Carl Medearis

Gifted to us by life-long Bible translators, this book offers personal insights in how Christians can meet and build relationships with their Muslim neighbors. The author speaks with confidence and experience in this regard, sprinkling the book with real life anecdotes about interactions with a variety of people in a variety of settings.

It’s clear Medearis’ overriding concern is to demonstrate that Christians and Muslims can co-exist, can be loving and good neighbors, and can engage in meaningful religious discussion based around common elements of Christianity and Islam. Towards this end he would much rather sidestep some of the most awkward conversation points that might arise, preferring to encourage his readers towards that common ground. This is important to keep in mind. If you’re inclined to see discussions with others primarily as an opportunity to engage in debate – whether academic, historical, or theological – you will probably be less than thrilled with Medearis’ approach.

For someone unfamiliar with the basics of Islam, the Qu’ran, or Islamic history Medaris’ suggestions might not raise any eyebrows. And even as someone with at least a passing familiarity with each of these areas, I’m willing and able to give Medaris a lot of latitude as his goal is not confrontation but conversation, and this is desperately needed at all levels and all over the world! Combatting an us-versus-them attitude is not only unhelpful but contrary to the command of Jesus to love our neighbor.

Medearis purports both anecdotally and directly an attitude that promotes the idea of spirituality against religiosity. Only by refraining from some of the broad connotations of spirituality and thinking of only the worst excesses and abuses of religiosity can I come close to sympathizing with his position, which I think I find ultimately to be either unhelpful to Christians or dishonest to them. I understand his emphasis on Jesus only to be particularly helpful in cross-cultural discussions, but it falls short ultimately as a way of living the Christian life. Only by attempting to live life as an isolated Christian without meaningful Christian community can such a Jesus only theology work, and such an isolated life is contrary to Jesus’ own practice and the direct instructions of the Bible.

Medearis does a good job at introducing the basic tenets of Islam, providing a brief historical overview of Muhammad and Islam and explaining differences between the three major sects of Islam.

This is a good starting reference for Christians who feel led, or interested, or realize they have an opportunity to build a relationship with a Muslim person. His insistence on doing so not as a means to an end but simply as a fulfillment of the command to love our neighbor is admirable. This doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for meaningful, deep, and sometimes complicated and difficult religious dialogue down the line. It just acknowledges that’s not where things should – or can – start.