Friday, June 29, 2012

Partisanship, Spiritual Gifts, and Solutions

I know that, politically, I have views that are not popular with either of the major parties. I don't see either party as "the good guy" or "the bad guy" so much as the designated party of certain standard answers to any given question, and certain standard approaches to any given problem. I'm not saying either party is exactly a broken clock -- but just like a broken clock that is right twice a day, each political party has the right answer to certain questions and the wrong answer to others. The real trick in voting (or any other kind of fill-the-vacancy situation) is, I think, to pick the person with the "default answer" that fits best with the needs of the situation. Need a law-enforcement type? Republicans are pro-responsibility when it comes to crime and punishment, and often make a good fit with law enforcement because they will put public safety and the rule of law above a sad story from a criminal; their compassion sides solely with the victim. Need a public defender? Democrats are pro-compassion for the criminal when it comes to crime and punishment, and if a criminal needs a wholehearted defense it should probably come from someone with that point of view. It is like the "spiritual gifts" surveys that you see sometimes in churches. People with different gifts are best in different roles.

At the national level, in economics, Democrat policies frequently add restrictions to business or increase the cost of doing business with an aim to redistributing the money to the worker; Republican policies frequently remove restrictions from businesses and cut back on redistributive policies with an aim to increase business opportunity, increase a businessman's return on investment and so increase the incentive to invest. When there is a vast number of people with oppressive jobs, Democrats are probably the party whose policies will help that situation. When there is a vast number of people who have no employment at all, Republicans are probably the party whose policies will help create more jobs.

None of that is guaranteed to help now, when the international situation plays into the bleak employment picture. Millions of formerly-American jobs have gone overseas because of our uncompetitive labor prices. Not only have we lost the jobs and gone into substantial debt to finance the living standard we became accustomed to, but those lost jobs were in a sense the collateral for that debt and the means by which we intended to repay them. We have not yet adjusted back to something sustainable. The time may yet come when the political parties have to take a fresh look at the problems and look beyond their stock answers. Until some party comes up with a truly workable solution -- which may require that people of different gifts cooperate with each other rather than demonize each other -- I think at least a little modesty would be in order from the political parties, and a little decrease in arrogance towards their opponents, if neither of them can solve the problem at hand.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Common "Righteous Works" that are filthy rags

Sometimes I get the feeling that Isaiah was talking about me when he wrote about those "righteous works" that were filthy rags in God's eyes. Ever get that feeling? I'll lead off with myself here but include some thoughts that apply more generally as well:

  1. Blog posts about other peoples' sins. 
  2. Prayers that "confess" other peoples' sins in order to accuse them (or shame them) and elevate ourselves. 
  3. "Hymns to God" that are polemical against other Christians.
  4. Likewise Bible studies designed to show how we are the good guys and the other is not. 
  5. Sermons that show how Jesus' words don't really apply to us today. 
  6. "Fellowship" opportunities that leave out the people who need it the most.
I'm sure there are others. The more we look at our "righteous acts", the more it seems like Isaiah knew what he was talking about.

God's mercy is great, God's faithfulness is constant, God's goodness is sure. On that we place our hope.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Placebo Effect

When doctors test new medicines, they often compare it against another medicine -- or against a placebo. A placebo is a fake; it is known to have no effect other than what is given it by the hope placed in it. There are arguments and counter-arguments about their effectiveness. There are circumstances when a placebo alone won't help. There are other circumstances where a placebo will make some kind of difference.

That is to say, the clinical testing procedure has to take into account that hope alone is measurably good for you, and makes an objective difference in your health and wellbeing.

I'm not advocating placebos, or anything that is fake. I would simply want people to take hope itself seriously. It has proven itself in many clinical trials by now. If unfounded hope can make a measurable difference in someone's life, how much more difference is made by a solid and trustworthy hope.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

A window into our daily struggles

Some stories are popular beyond any expectation -- even stories that are no better-crafted than average, or have serious flaws. I notice that the more popular series speak to the current situation: they touch the average person's daily struggles. Consider the basic premise behind the most popular stories of the last decade:

Harry Potter: An unappreciated boy with a dreary life finds a world that is enchanted and exciting -- where he is welcome, and he matters.

Twilight: An only child from a broken home finds a large family where she belongs, and love that will last literally forever.

Hunger Games: the common people fight a system rigged against them by a rich, out-of-touch political class in a corrupt and decadent capitol.

The themes of the day are being lonely and unappreciated, wanting to find love that will actually last, and living in a big system that is rigged against the little people. The newest entry in this list, Hunger Games, has a heroine whose early victories include seeing the politically-assigned "enemies" as not so different than herself -- or her younger sister. In that world where hatred and conflict are promoted, an act of defiance can be as simple as holding hands, or honoring a little girl's death with some wildflowers, or giving someone a small loaf of bread.

My point here is seeing how simple it is to undermine a corrupt system. Every act of honesty, decency, or compassion is good not only for its own sake, but also as a threat to the surrounding darkness. These books speak to daily life because so many people are looking for a warm welcome, for a chance to matter, for a place to belong. And like the Hunger Games' heroine Katniss discovered: it is a powerful thing to realize that other people -- even "the enemies" -- really are just like you.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Miracles of Abundance: Wine for a Wedding Feast

Jesus did one more miracle of abundance beyond things involving fishes and loaves that his disciples mentioned to us. At the wedding at Cana, Jesus made an abundance of wine. Apparently it was of exceptional quality, too, according to the comments about it.

Jesus did a number of miracles of abundance. But this is the only one that took place at a pre-arranged celebration. It was the only miracle recorded at a wedding feast, and the only miraculous abundance of wine, something uniquely suited to a celebration. Again, we see God's generosity in the gift that exceeded the need.

And again at the Last Supper, just as with the bread, we see Jesus choose from the table something that he had already blessed with abundance and surpassing quality: this time, wine. "Take and drink. This is my blood, shed for you." Again, we see him ensure that later generations will know about his choice of wine: "Do this to remember me."

Jesus referred to himself as a bridegroom at times. In his choice of wine, among all the messages for us there, was there also a reminder of a celebration in his kingdom? As with the bread, we can see the abundance of forgiveness, and the gift that even surpasses the needs of all. But Jesus made sure that the abundance of wine reminds us of a wedding feast, and that the cup is also "a foretaste of the feast to come."

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Miracles of Abundance: The Loaves and the Fish

Jesus performed some miracles of abundance; C.S. Lewis called them "miracles of fertility". From a small amount of bread he made a plentiful meal for thousands; besides the bread, there were also some small fish that he made into that plentiful meal for thousands.

God often uses miracles as a sign. That is to say: there is a message in the miracles. A healing may show God's power, but it also shows compassion, and at times was also a sign that Jesus has authority to forgive sins, or to demonstrate that a blind man can see better than the sighted.

In the miracles of abundance, there is a message that God will provide. And there is a message of God's generosity. Picture the leftover baskets, as Jesus' generosity overflowed and went beyond what was needed.

Still: Why loaves and fish? I suppose God could have had the disciples find someone in the crowd who was carrying some lamb jerky or dried figs if it had suited his purposes. But bread is one of the most deeply-used food-symbols. It was the manna in the wilderness -- something that Jesus mentioned not too far from the feeding of the multitude, according to John's gospel. It was the Bread of the Presence in the ancient Hebrew priestly ordinances. It was a reminder that physical food does not fulfill our needs -- as Jesus quoted the ancient saying that man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Bread had a long and honored history as a symbol long before Jesus applied it to himself as the true bread from heaven. Remembering what he said about not living by bread alone, the "true bread from heaven" seems to work out to another way of saying he is the Word of God, made flesh.

Interesting, interesting, that something he had singled out for a miracle of abundance, and had such a rich symbolic background, was again chosen out of the different selections on the table at the Last Supper. It was the bread that he took and broke, and blessed, and said, "Take and eat. This is my body, given for you." He made sure that later generations would not forget: "Do this to remember me."

So we have the ancient "manna" as bread from heaven, and the miracle of abundance applied to bread. When Jesus chose the bread at the Last Supper, there may be a message here, about a miracle of abundance for God's forgiveness, and a sign that God's generosity again supplies more than is needed.

To be continued ...

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Traditional Foods on the Holidays -- What If ...

Despite the odd title, this post is going somewhere. It actually launches a short series, but comes at it from the angle of our recent celebrations of Jesus' resurrection.

Every holiday has its traditional food -- though different families may have different traditions. I grew up eating turkey for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and leg of lamb for Easter. The lamb was the only one with a particular religious significance: it reminded us of the ultimate Passover that Jesus accomplished, where the angel of death's work is undone by resurrection -- first for Jesus, then ultimately for us also.

But it seems that for Easter dinner, the tradition might have been broiled fish. On the occasions after Jesus' resurrection when he eats with his disciples, whenever someone made note of the meat, the meat was broiled fish. The very first day when he rose from the dead, when he met his disciples for dinner, he ate broiled fish (Luke 24:42). When he met them by the sea, again he ate broiled fish with them (John 21:9-13). So broiled fish might also do well for a celebration of the resurrection, as a show of faith in the reality of the risen Lord, who was so thoroughly alive (not a mere vision) that he ate with his disciples after rising from the dead.

Though fish does have more significance than the resurrection -- as if more were needed. It's interesting that, during Lent, many Roman Catholics still eat only fish on Friday. That's another inheritance from Judaism, where fish counts differently than other meats for purposes of fasting or dietary regulations. (It's why the bagels with the cream cheese have smoked salmon on them, not roast beef, on a kosher table.)

At any rate, about the fish at Jesus' resurrection dinner: hold that thought.