Sunday, December 05, 2021

Advent 2: The Wisdom of Hope

I remember watching a football game some time ago, professionals playing. The team with possession needed a big play. The receivers went deep, but they were tightly covered. They kept scrambling to get open, but the people covering them were sticking close. Meanwhile the quarterback's defenders broke, and the quarterback was dodging erratically to try to stay upright against the people who had gotten through the line. He was nearly tackled more than once. Still the receivers were scrambling to get or stay open. It's not an unfamiliar scene in football, but this particular down kept going, the scenario playing out longer than it typically does, so it stuck in my mind. The quarterback persisted and eventually found an opening -- and found one of the receivers who had shaken free of his pursuer by just enough. The quarterback completed the pass to the open receiver. Those who supported that team were elated at the victory. It was a game-changer, a momentum-changer -- but it was not luck. None of it would have happened if any of the players on the one team had given up. For such a physical game, that play had a large psychological element. The receiver trusted his quarterback, or at least still hoped. Hope was not delusion, it was a shrewd play.

It is not unusual to hear people mocking the idea of hope as wishful thinking, delusion, or mere stubbornness. Cynicism is often mislabeled as realism. I can relate: the one play from a long-forgotten football game stuck in my mind precisely because I thought it was silly that they were still trying after everything had clearly gone against them. I wondered if they would accept defeat graciously. They may have been mature enough to do that; I'll never know because they were professional enough not to assume a loss just because they had more obstacles than any one player could overcome. Even when we advocate for hope, it can be difficult to catch sight of that clear opening that we're fighting for. Sometimes it can be hard to believe that our effort makes a difference. 

And yet it does. Our action -- based on our hope -- makes a difference to ourselves and to the people around us. Despair is a psy-op of evil. We live in a time when some rising causes of deaths are labeled as "deaths of despair" and yet people still mock hope. Depression -- in which a large component is adopting despair into the worldview -- is considered a major mental illness, yet people still manage not to consider the essentially healthy nature of hope. 

The reason it is easy to lose hope is because it is easy to misplace hope: to base it on someone or something that will fall. But for those who trust in God, hope is a shrewd play. 


Sunday, November 28, 2021

Advent 1: A promise that we trust

In the general thought of congregations that I've attended, "The valley of the shadow of death" means this passing world, as does "The great tribulation." A sober or even gloomy assessment of this world is not limited to the ancient world; far from it. Some modern publications seem to revel in talk of doom, blame, and fear. And so it is well that we interrupt this scheduled programming for an important announcement: God keeps his promises. And he loves us, frightened little kittens* as he might see us. We're frightened because we know that human solutions will eventually fail us (see: estate planning, and insurance).

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: "The LORD is our righteousness." (Jeremiah 33:14-16)
Those who believe in the promises made by the God of Israel dare to hope: not in our own names but in the Lord's. It allows us to let go of the fear, to breathe more deeply, and to look forward to the days to come.


* Hatchlings would be more scriptural, with the gathering chicks beneath the wings, but I find kittens more relatable if you'll pardon the license. 


Monday, November 22, 2021

Fellowship series index

 Fellowship series index

Fellowship is not an optional part of following Christ. A new command he gave us, that we love each other. We cannot do that alone. 

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Fellowship that endures past the first test

I plead with Euodias, and I plead with Syntyche, that they be of the same mind in the Lord. And I ask you also, true yokefellow, to help those women who labored with me in the gospel, with Clement also ..." - Philippians 4:2

Some quarrels are petty, others are understandable. Here we don't know the cause, only the effects: the disagreement was divisive. Quarrels hinder morale and productivity. They cause pain because they disrupt fellowship and friendship. Paul in his many letters explained so many things, and addressed all kinds of problems in the church. And he places enough value on fellowship that he stops to address this disagreement among members.

When we think about what matters in the church, it is easy to be high-minded: we think of teaching rightly, taking care of the poor, building peoples' faith, encouraging people in love, kindling hope, proclaiming forgiveness and reconciliation. All of those things are vital. But forgiveness and reconciliation are easier to teach than to live.

As for Euodias and Syntyche, we don't know which party was "right" or "wrong", or if those words even apply to the original disagreement. But it looks like the division was causing problems for the larger group, and in those problems we may recognize right or wrong. The people originally involved had not resolved their disagreement; had they let it fester? We've all been in the company of people who are in an enduring disagreement; it can be unpleasant. There is a cost to the hearts of other people around them. 

From inside the quarrel, it may have looked like a matter of right and wrong. It may have looked like a matter of harm and grudges. After awhile, from the outside, those things usually look like stubbornness and pride.

Is a heart ever cleansed without repentance? Is a harm ever healed without forgiveness? Repentance from one person, forgiveness from another person -- they seem like such different things. But they both require humility, and they both require that love becomes more important than the cause of division. Lack of repentance, lack of forgiveness -- in my experience, both generally come from pride. Christianity forbids us to turn the faith into a system of keeping score about who was right: "Love keeps no record of wrongs." When the system has no interest in keeping score about who was right, forgiveness and repentance are not such different actions. And no fellowship survives the first problem intact without both. 


Sunday, November 07, 2021

Fellowship: He greeted them by name

St Paul's letters write about things that are vital to our faith and Christian life: evangelism, mission, the meaning of Christ's death, the Lord's supper, baptism, resurrection and more. And in those same letters he is known to greet people by name. In his letter to the Romans, he greets over two dozen people by name (see Romans 16:1-16). Again there are around a dozen people listed in the closing of the letter to the Colossians, either co-workers of Paul's*, or those in Colosse. Paul shows no signs of embarrassment for mixing personal greetings with deep theology: he considers that people are worthy of acknowledgment and greeting. Paul did not write his letters for his own benefit but for theirs. 

The weighty matters in his letters find their meaning only in relation to people, whether it is evangelism or mission, the meaning of Christ's death, the Lord's supper, baptism, or whatever the case may be: all these things involve people by nature, by intent, as their goal and purpose to call and uplift and restore people. And like Christ, Paul makes a point to know peoples' names. He recalls their names, notices people, includes people. When the Lord restores our souls, it is clear enough that people matter to him. They matter to his followers. They matter to us. People will matter til the end of time, and past the end of the age. 

Christianity has a theological richness and depth, knowledge and wisdom -- and yet it cannot be confined to the academic. The Christian life is one of breaking bread and fellowship too. It changes daily life; it enriches daily life. An academic pursuit may be satisfied with information; Christianity is fulfilled with community and fellowship in our love of God and neighbor. It is more godly to pursue the lost soul than the lost fact. The lost souls are found by knowing them and being kind to them, and first of all by seeing and hearing them. It is a sign of respect -- of recognizing someone's worth -- that we know them by name. Those who taught us have set an example, and it is not for us to neglect it: we matter to each other.


* As he writes to the Colossians, Paul's list of co-workers includes both Mark and Luke. I've long found it worthy of notice that three of the known authors of the New Testament are listed together as co-workers in the same city at the same time. It would be possible for them to have sat around the same table there in Rome, and at least Paul was likely working on his writing projects. The New Testament writings themselves have an undercurrent of fellowship.

Sunday, October 31, 2021

The righteous will live by faith

Today is remembered as Reformation Day in some Christian circles: the day on which Martin Luther challenged the Roman Catholic church on selling indulgences, among other matters, and advocated the priority of faith. I mean "priority" in more than one of its meanings, so to be clear: both the importance of faith, and the fact that faith comes before the resulting works.

Jesus taught that evil comes from the heart: immorality, theft, adultery, murder, and such begin as internal matters. Before there are works of evil, there are thoughts and desires of evil. Consider the much-neglected commandments against coveting: you shall not covet your neighbor's property, or his wife, or his workers, or anything pertaining to our neighbor. Coveting property leads to theft. Coveting someone's spouse leads to adultery. In some cases, it has been known to lead to murder. The seeds of the evil to come were planted as coveting. The deeds followed from thoughts and desires that were encouraged. 

And the righteous live by faith. It begins as an internal matter. Long before Mother Theresa was a saint, she learned to value compassion and humility -- to see other people through the eyes of faith, as valuable in God's sight. Long before Abraham was anyone's father, he learned faith: to trust that God could keep a promise to bring offspring even from an old man such as he was. Long before we step out in faith, before we find our own calling, we learn the thoughts and desires of the heart that come from faith. We learn holiness and compassion. We learn to trust God's thoughts more than our own. We learn the wisdom of both righteousness and forgiveness. We learn the immeasurable importance of loving our neighbors. We learn what it means to desire mercy rather than sacrifice. It starts as small as a mustard seed, and grows until it is a refuge or sanctuary in this world. 

Faith, hope, and love are closely intertwined. It is hard to have one without having all three. God's love creates our faith. Our faith lives out God's love.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Fellowship: A friend closer than a brother

Family relationships can be complicated. Old rivalries, disputes, distance, differences of priorities, so many things can drive us apart from the small list of people who are closely related by blood. 

Few things feel as satisfying as keeping company with those who are close in heart, mind, and soul. 

"There is a friend that sticks closer than a brother." - Proverbs 18:24

The friends that are close to our heart may share traits with us that we do not share with our own families. We may share common goals, work on common tasks, or have the same creative pursuits. We find that Christ also intends his people to work together, as he sent out his apostles two by two rather than alone. Fellowship is not an optional part of our Christian walk. It is not possible to learn to love our neighbor or the rest of humanity when we are alone. May we be blessed to find that friend that sticks closer than a brother.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Fellowship: Strength and Hope in Adversity

Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falls; for he has no other to help him up. Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone? And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken. -- Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 

There is a blessing in the simple presence of another who is well-disposed toward us. The difference between a manageable problem and a disaster can be as simple as whether there is anyone there to help. Earlier this year, in freezing weather without power for several days, I was reminded of the simple reality of the need for warmth; even being in the same room with another person helps with a true survival need. Sometimes There is a phrase people use to devalue an easy job: it is called a "warm body" job, meaning that anyone who is still alive -- who has a warm body -- can do it. Being a friend is a warm body job; still it's one of the greatest blessings we can give each other. That can be literal warmth in dangerously cold weather. But the world can be a cold place in ways that have nothing to do with the weather, and a friend is welcome then too.

The difference between a bad day and a good day can be as simple as whether anyone is there to share it. Of course things are not always so simple; another person may be an enemy or a critic instead of a friend. Even at a time like that, life is a team sport: we may be able to withstand an enemy if we have the company of friends. 

It is part of our calling as people of God to be people of God together, for each other. We are called to be each others' strength, to ease each others' way. Our presence can be an assurance to others, can be that presence that keeps disaster further away. Two are better than one.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Fellowship: The gifts I have -- and those I do not have

Now there are various gifts, but the same Spirit. There are various services, but the same Lord. There are various works, but the same God works all in all [of us]. Now to each one, the Spirit's manifestation is given for benefit. To one is given a message of wisdom, to another the word of knowledge, by the same Spirit. To another, faith by the same Spirit, to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit. To another, the working of miracles; to another, the discerning of spirits; to another various tongues; to another, the interpretation of tongues. And in all these, the one and the same Spirit works, distributing to each according to his purpose. -- St Paul, I Corinthians 12:7-11

It is plain enough that there are abilities each of us has, and that each of us lacks. Even with the gift of the Holy Spirit, still we find ourselves with different gifts. Fellowship does something for us together that we cannot do apart: it gives us together the sum of our gifts, including the gifts we do not have ourselves. If my neighbor has a gift which I do not, it is no benefit to me unless I know my neighbor. One has wisdom without knowledge, and is lacking. One has knowledge without faith, and is lacking. Another has faith but little ability to communicate. Even though human nature is easily swayed to jealousy or competition, the gifts are not in competition. It is easy to worry that their gift outshines mine or lessens mine; it is easy to overlook that without each other, our gifts can easily remain unfulfilled. My gifts are not in competition with theirs, but can extend and complete theirs. And without each others' gifts, mine are lessened; theirs are lessened. Our gifts are of best effect when added together.

Lord, grant us to gladly see in each other what we miss in ourselves, and without shame or jealousy view our neighbors' gifts as blessings, and without haughtiness use our gifts to bless, and to expand the reach of our neighbors' gifts.

Sunday, October 03, 2021

Fellowship: Iron sharpens iron

Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another. -- Proverbs 27:17 

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. 

Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. 

Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

Saint Ambrose and Saint Augustine. 

Saint Francis and Saint Claire. 

Professor Tolkien and Professor Lewis. 

Many people are on a quest to become the best possible version of themselves. Some even see it as a form of service or worship. But the ones who go farthest down that road often spark a special connection with another on the same road. Whether they are friends or rivals, having someone else on that level challenges people to reach deeper into themselves, to strive harder, and ultimately to reach levels that they would not have attained by themselves. 

Lord, may we bless you for the gift of fellowship. Grant that we all may meet those who sharpen us. May we delight in their companionship on the road. May we bless your name as we find those traveling the same path. May our fellowship glorify you.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Magnificat: The Pure Heart That Rejoices in God

I long for a pure heart, but can find myself struggling against despair, resentment, and other unwholesome things. Today I find myself considering the hearts of other people in the Bible. Because it is not entirely appropriate that I should compare myself to Jesus, I find myself considering mere mortals like myself. I find myself considering Mary, Jesus' mother. 

I think her heart was exceptionally pure because of what she spoke to her relative Elizabeth: 

My soul magnifies the Lord
My spirit rejoices in God my Savior
For he has seen regarded the low estate of his handmaiden:
For all generations to come shall call me blessed.
He that is mighty has done great things for me.
Holy is his name.
His mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has put down the mighty from their seats
And exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things
And has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy.
As he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed forever.

Mary's pure heart rejoices in God, rejoices in justice, takes strength from God's blessings -- and takes the defeat of the wicked for granted. Her worldview hinges on God's faithfulness: his mercy, his strength, his justice, his enduring promises. She views herself as God's servant; this is not the first time she has said as much. And in a few more months when Jesus is born, some shepherds come with a tale of angels announcing the birth. Mary's pure heart treasures the things that God has done, and ponders the things that God has accomplished. 

Mary does not speak of it as an incomplete or partial victory in an occupied territory under the Roman Empire, where the tax collectors are greedy and the judges are corrupt and the other people take all the room at the inn, leaving her to give birth in a stable. The angels are not too proud to rejoice; neither is Mary. She does not invite the darkness or mislabel it as "realism" to take the shine off every victory. She takes for granted that the days are numbered for the proud and the mighty who leave others hungry. She believes that what lasts from generation to generation is God's mercy, along with the blessings that God has given the world.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Blessings that shape our hearts

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus' first time teaching in public begins with a series of blessings that have comforted, inspired, and strengthened his people ever since they were first spoken. These blessings have turned the hearers into his people ever since they were first spoken, as he directly addresses the broken places in life with a healing touch. 

And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying, 

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you, when people shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so they persecuted the prophets which were before you.
(Mathew 5:2-12)

These are blessings that shape our hearts and kindle our desire for holiness. Here we see that any hurt in this passing world is met with compassion by God. Our small and futile-seeming efforts are folded into God's own blessing of the world in a way that renews our hope and faith in the goodness of God. 

To hold those blessings more steadily in my sight, I have reworked some parts as a prayer: 

Let me be humble.
Let me hunger and thirst after righteousness.
Let me be merciful.
Let me be pure in heart.
Let me seek peace and pursue it. 

When I am spiritually poor, may I hope in your promise of the kingdom.
When I mourn, comfort me.
When I face persecution, remove bitterness from me. May I be mindful of those who went before me, and rejoice in your faithfulness. 

At other times, I may find it more helpful to see them a mission statement or vision statement for the followers of Christ in this world. May it be more and more true, as I grow in Christ, that: 

I am humble.
I am hungry and thirsty for righteousness.
I am merciful.
I am pure in heart.
I am a peacemaker.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

The thirst for holiness in 2021

Holiness is a deeply beautiful thing. Awareness of holiness distinguishes the sactuary in many churches from a mere stage in others. Holiness is sometimes reduced to being separate. But separate from what? From from hatred, from malice, from greed, from factions, from any number of other stains on our souls that trouble us. But separation from everything leaves nothing; there is more to holiness than that. Holiness in Scripture is often associated with beauty, and in the presence especially of nature's beauty we may more commonly feel the sense of holiness. Holiness is quiet, awe-inspiring, purifying.When in the presence of the holy, we have a natural tendency to reverence. A certain kind of separation makes space for better things, clears away the hardness in our hearts, prepares the way for the Lord. "Let every heart prepare him room."

A profane culture is a desert. There is a promotion of hatred, greed, lust, malice, factions, envy, discord, strife. "Irreverence" is seen as a virtue, used as a praise-word. Anger is used as a substitute for righteousness. I have even met people who defend hatred. (They do not profess to be Christians.) The public square is a wasteland, and the culture war has gone scorched-earth. 

Even now I believe there are many who would prefer another way. A fast from hatred, a fast from greed, abstaining from malice or divisions. Offering a kind word to a neighbor. 

I have listened to many people who have a feeling that the divisions among us -- simmering for many years -- are at risk of coming to a sudden catastrophe (not of the natural variety). For things to get worse, neighbor would have to turn on neighbor, friend against friend, family against family. But haven't we already? Before the match drops, may we take a moment to remember our neighbors, our friends, our families. If our generation is the one that sees the next earth-shaking event, and if we want to get through this together, mending our bridges may be a priority. (And looking down on each other doesn't make us better; it makes us arrogant.) 

I believe we share a thirst for holiness. All of us cry out for the world to be filled with better things, for peace and beauty and healing. May our prayers unite us.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

The Sermon on the Mount and the Goodness of God

God is good. That is one of the most basic messages of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount.

What does Jesus teach us to have in mind as we pray? That God is good. 
When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, we remember the words of that prayer and pray them. But first he made sure they understood why he taught us such a bold but simple prayer:
"Your heavenly Father knows what you need before you ask him" (Matthew 6:8).
Jesus taught us to call God "Father" when we pray, so that every time we pray our first thought is that our heavenly father knows what we need before we ask him.
"If you, even though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him?"

Why does Jesus urge us not to worry? Because God is good. 
"Look at the birds of the air. They do not sow crops or harvest or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?"
"See how the lilies of the field grow. They neither toil nor spin (neither work nor weave). Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was arrayed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field that is here today and tomorrow used for fuel, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?"
"So do not worry, saying 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' The pagans run after these things, but your heavenly Father knows that you need them."

How can Jesus tell us to be good even to our enemies? Because God is good, even to the unrighteous.
"I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. ... Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."

Because God is good, we need not worry. Because God is good, we can pray. Because God is good, we love our neighbors. 

"This, then, is how you should pray: 'Our Father in heaven ...'".

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Key moral issues of our time: Economic Globalization

This post was originally written in 2016 but not published at the time written for reasons of timing. I think that now is as good a time as any to publish it; though the specific examples are dated, the point is still relevant. The economy is included in faith and morality, considering whether the systems are fair and just to the people involved. The spur for this piece was this 2016 blog post on a think-tank sponsored by a globalist enterprise. The risk of this arrangement is whether someone making a huge profit in international business is effectively publishing a justification for self-enrichment by funding a think-tank to support their endeavors. 

Economics can sound dry -- until a family member cannot find a job. Since the start of the industrial era of mass production, economies around the world have been adjusting to it, and there has been something of a race to the top for the investors as business empires go global. In this article that promotes free and open trade, I've bolded a part that is meant to argue for why the proposed restructure is a good one, and implies it is a fair one: 
Originally attributed to the English classical economist David Ricardo and later formalized by generations of economists including Samuelson, trade theories rooted in comparative advantage hold that free trade should raise the overall welfare of all nations that engage in it. Wages of Chinese workers should rise, as would income levels of American capital owners, if the two countries open up to trade. And any negative impact domestically could be ameliorated by making the necessary transfers to compensate those hurt by trade. 
And here lies a key economic and moral issue with globalization: It defines "the overall welfare of all nations" in terms of benefits to workers in developing nations, and benefits to investors ("capital owners") in the developed nations. The economic theory as stated here flinches away from directly recognizing the direct harm to workers in the developed nations who lose their jobs and lower their standards of living on a massive scale. The theory accepts as collateral damage the millions of workers in the developed nations whose standard of living often declines below the poverty line. During the recent period of globalization, the number of people in the United States facing food insecurity -- who rely on assistance programs to provide food -- has increased sharply.

Globalization tends to be supported by the investor class that benefits from the arrangement. Policy-oriented think-tanks that support globalization are typically sponsored by the well-connected capital owners who benefit from these arrangements at the expense of others. The theory of mutual benefit here excuses itself from responsibility to "those hurt by trade". It overlooks their right to be considered as part of the issue, and neglects to acknowledge that there is a large, powerlessness group of people harmed in the developing countries, and a small, well-connected group that benefits. It is a transfer of wealth from the workers of one country to the elite of its own country and the workers of another country. Income inequality grows within developed nations as a direct result of this globalizing arrangement. Of all the groups involved in the trade, the investors in the rich nation are the main beneficiaries.   
The remarkable rise in the living standards of citizens in Japan, the four “Asian Tiger” economies, and most notably China, are testaments to free trade working its magic. 
The remarkable rise in the living standards in Asia is commendable. The fact that it came on the back of the bankruptcy of the city of Detroit, with other rust-belt cities strained to the breaking point, is not so commendable. And the benefit to the U.S., under this theory, is the increased wealth of the investor class. Which brings us to our think-tank author struggling to determine why global trade is slowing, and what do to about it. His third explanation for the slow-down of trade acknowledges "those hurt by globalization" trying to stop being hurt by globalization (a driving force of modern populism):
A third explanation for falling levels of global trade is the rise of populism and anti-globalization sentiment. The WTO has, in fact, warned that these trends could damage an already weak world economy. The desire of those hurt by globalization to shield themselves from foreign competition via protectionist or retaliatory policies is a growing influence in the political life of a number of countries, including the world’s most advanced democracies.  
The author seems to struggle to understand the desire of "those hurt" to stop being hurt ("shield themselves" / "protectionist"); I'd say it's an entirely understandable and honest motive. The workers standing up for themselves is depicted as a risk to the world economy. The unspoken assumption is that the workers are a threat, that their concern for their own well-being is illegitimate, and that the enlightened leaders might accept "world" prosperity coming at the expense of the people living on food stamps. The author struggles to understand populism; I'd refer him back to his earlier comments:
Any negative impact domestically could be ameliorated by making the necessary transfers to compensate those hurt by trade
"Necessary transfers to compensate those hurt by trade" has, in the U.S., worked out to electronic fund transfers under the SNAP food program, with more than 43 million Americans needing help to put food on the table (Aug 2016 numbers). A few short years ago in 2009, that number was 33 million. The cost of the SNAP program in August 2016 was 5 billion dollars for the month; the portion of that due to the 10 million newly-insecure is over 1 billion dollars per month. The progressive agenda focuses on whether the necessary welfare programs are actually expensed to the investor class who directly benefited from offshoring the workers' jobs. The populist agenda focuses on the underlying injustice of investors profiting by selling out the workers' job security, and the workers' right to self-determination -- which they were not actually willing to sell in return for food stamps. Their lives, their jobs were involved in a trade deal to which they did not consent, on a scale that has devastated not just scattered individual families but cities, states, and regions of the country. 

So the "benefit to all countries" is, for the developed nation, a benefit accruing to the investor class at the expense of the standard of living -- and the economic security -- of the working class. This contributes directly to the rise of populism in the working class, and the growing opposition to policies that the developed world's working class recognizes -- rightly -- as harmful to them. From the populist viewpoint, the issue is not that workers are standing in the way of globalism; it is that globalism does not recognize the workers right to insist on a system that considers them worthy of notice, one that does not condemn them to poverty while shockingly rich people benefit from their loss. 

Sunday, August 15, 2021

He could have thrown the stone

In the account of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery (see John 8), his challenge to the crowd is simple: Whoever is without sin can throw the first stone. And typically, as we read and study that passage we are encouraged to recall our own sins before we judge others. Instead of condemning the person, we condemn the sin. He is teaching us humility about our own sins, and compassion toward those who take the wrong turn. So far, so good. 

But consider this: Jesus could have thrown that first stone. He is not only teaching us humility, he is not only teaching us compassion. He is also showing us that the heart of God seeks mercy for us. If God's heart's desire was to condemn people, then Jesus would have thrown that stone. If the "one without sin" should condemn the person, then Jesus would have condemned her. But as Jesus shows us, "one without sin" takes no delight in condemning others. He condemns the action -- but instead of condemning the person, he would rather restore the person. 

Sunday, August 08, 2021

Silence, and Speech worth the wait

This morning in devotions I was reading what little we know of Zechariah, father of John the Baptist. He was a devout man in his own right, one who served the Lord through upright living in his community, whose wife Elizabeth did the same. Beyond that he served as a priest, and even served in the Temple when it stood. Many of you know already: as he served in the Temple offering incense, the angel Gabriel came to him and told him that he would be the father of a great prophet, who must be named John. 

All that we know about Zechariah to that point, we know without having heard a word from him. The first time we have his words, they are words of doubt, or skepticism, or possibly frustration that his long-offered prayer for a child had not been answered before. And so when greeted with the sight of an archangel and the news of a blessing, his words proclaim his doubt. In return, Gabriel gives him food for thought -- and then declares that Zechariah will be unable to speak until the prophecy of John's birth is fulfilled. 

I have no idea what it would be like for an adult member of society to be unable to speak for at least 9 months. But he had a long time to think about what he had said, and the promise that he would be able to speak again. He had time to think what the right reaction to Gabriel's news would have been, time to consider better words. And the next time he spoke -- after the birth of his son -- his words were of such power and beauty that we still recite them today. 

There are religious groups that practice a vow of silence at certain times. I wonder if there are people who go months without ever having said anything except praise. Situation permitting, I find it admirable. There is a certain beauty in the right kind of silence, the kind that waits and plans the right time and place for words, the kind that considers well what words should be said. The next time Zechariah opened his mouth, he had a second chance at what he should have said when he heard the good news; he began by blessing the Lord. 

Sunday, August 01, 2021

Render unto Caesar: A perspective-shift

I've pondered before over Jesus' saying to "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." I still consider the most practical and edifying point is this: we are the ones with God's image, we are the ones who bear God's name; we belong to God, and we render ourselves to him. Though the most common use of that passage is as a commentary on taxes -- the original question that was asked of Jesus. 

Lately I find myself side-eyeing that saying from a different perspective: government-issued currency. Roman money was manufactured by the government for its own purposes, and they took care to stamp it in such a way as to remind people of their presence and involvement in their financial system. Having a common, regulated currency was even a useful function. Much remains the same. 

From the context of finances, it is easy to be distressed over a fact of modern life: that our financial security is tightly tied to money with no intrinsic value and no guarantee on its stability. The systems we establish to reassure ourselves -- in this country, social security and the 401k system -- are likely enough to help us along in future years, but they also have no guarantee of full return on investment, much less sufficiency for our needs. The pandemic has given us some insight into how fragile our supply chain may be. 

The question people asked Jesus about taxes is closely related to the question about serving God or serving earthly money. Do we trust a human system? How far do we pursue an earthly goal? In our day, if the fiat currency were to revert to being mere numbers on a piece of paper or numbers on an electronic record, would we be secure? 

Our current financial system has endured long enough that we can overlook that it is a human system run by humans: dust, all of us, and eventually returning to dust. The things needful for life are all based on nature: food, water, sleep and the like. If money disappears or the government that establishes it fails, the food and water remain, even though the hardships of re-creating the system would be considerable. So Jesus' saying can also remind us to trust God's providence rather than our human systems: Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's. 

Sunday, July 25, 2021

The pattern of miracles

When Jesus lived among us, many miracles were credited to him: feeding the hungry, healing the sick, restoring the paralyzed, giving sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, even raising the dead. There are other kinds of miracles too; still, Jesus' miracles were generally acts of compassion and mercy. His pattern was to use his power to show his love for the world, especially for the suffering. And so certain other miracles seem off-pattern: entering through a locked door after his resurrection, or walking on water. 

And so I was interested when I heard my pastor's thoughts about this morning's reading, when Jesus walked on the water to his disciples crossing the lake in their boat at night. I have often heard that text preached with reference to fixing our eyes on Jesus amid the storms of life. I have heard it preached as Peter getting out of the boat, considering whether we have the faith to take that first step. I believe this is the first time I have heard it mentioned that Jesus did not ask Peter to get out of the boat, did not expect Peter to come to him: that the point of this miracle was so that Jesus could be with them. Jesus could have just as easily met them on the other side of the lake, as the disciples may have expected. His presence was for their safety and comfort. He did not meet the boat in the middle of the lake because he needed help getting to the other side; he met them because they needed him. 

I can see Jesus' miracle of entering through a locked door in the same light: it is a minor miracle where the power is small; the compassion is the vital part. The disciples were in hiding, in fear for their lives against the same corrupt and godless establishment that had ordered Jesus' death. And in Jesus walks as the proof that their lives are not so disposable as all that, that earthly powers are not so final as all that, that God is greater. As he said when he met them, "Peace be with you." It's the pattern of the miracles. 

Sunday, July 18, 2021

The dividing wall of hostility: Some things never change

It was many centuries ago now that St Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus, in a passage which liturgical churches re-read in services today: 

For he (Christ Jesus) is our peace, who has made both (competing groups among his readers) one, and has broken down the middle wall of partition between us; having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances ... (Ephesians 2:14-15)

What some translators term "the middle wall of partition" and "enmity", other translators have rendered "the dividing wall of hostility." The hostility was over who was right -- who was better -- and whether keeping ordinances could show who was good and not.

Paul's readers seem to have contained two sides of a debate: people who thought they were better than others because they kept certain purity laws, and people who thought they were better than others because they did not rely on purity laws. Given human nature, there were probably also those who were not that interested in the debate, and others who were not yet convinced by either side, but fixated on finding the one right answer in that debate. At any rate, it appears that all the air in the room was being used up on the debate.

The debates have changed. But one thing has not: when debates cause hostility, the debate itself becomes part of the problem. To be sure, a debate is more what the ancients might have called an "occasion" for hostility -- a setting in which sin flourishes. It really is up to us whether we descend into hostility. The fertile ground there is not merely the debate, but the idea that the debate falls into such a simple situation that people on one side are good people, while people on the other side are bad people. After all, St Paul devotes several chapters at times to explaining that the question of keeping the purity codes is not as simple as some would make it seem: that there is value in the law, and value in freedom, and possibly more value still in humility and recognizing that we are not all alike except in our humanity. God, grant me humility. 

Another thing remains the same: to get beyond our arguments, it requires perspective that God is greater still.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

The Gospel of Judas: Why Barbelo and Yaldabaoth are relevant to that conversation

End note, moved to the top: My apologies if some of the material in this post is not within the bounds of traditional Christian or Jewish belief. It comes with the territory of reading and commenting on the Gospel of Judas. Yet if we're going to assess that document at all, then we go into that territory.

Anyone reading the Gospel of Judas will come across the names of spiritual beings such as Barbelo and Yaldabaoth, along with a cosmic origin story involving emanations / generations and aeons. These unfamiliar names are flags that the Gospel of Judas comes from a certain Gnostic sub-group called Sethians. Without claiming any familiarity with Sethians myself, I'll pass along that some encyclopedia references suggest that the Sethians were a fusion of diaspora Hellenistic Judaism and some Greek beliefs. This fusion could have been early enough to predate Christianity, though the available sources so far suggest that without confidence, as the early range of possible origin dates for the Sethian movement. At any rate, it would mean the Sethians could have been an existing group in the Jewish diaspora at the time the evangelists brought the news of Jesus to the Jews scattered around the Roman empire.

On the consideration that the Sethians may have already been in the Jewish diaspora when the evangelists began to proclaim Jesus, I'd expect that the Sethians were less-than-mainstream in the Jewish community. More than one line of reasoning suggests it. We're familiar with several Jewish sects from the Jewish homeland from that era such as Pharisees and Sadducees -- not so much the Sethians. Also, some of the key figures in their cosmology such as Barbelo are never named in the Jewish cosmology of Genesis, never mentioned in Jewish Scriptures, never discussed in the conversations about Jewish controversies that are recorded in the New Testament. If we were to make a Venn diagram of mainstream Second Temple Judaism and its belief systems, several of the Sethian tenets about God / divinity seem to lie squarely outside the area shared by Pharisees and Sadducees, though with enough overlap to see that the Sethians owe some of their views to Judaism (or possibly: try to incorporate their Jewish ideas of origins into their Sethian views). 

The Sethian origin story (per the encyclopedia articles I've reviewed) has a sympathetic view of the serpent of Genesis and its role in humans' gain of knowledge, and possibly in humans' freedom from lesser religious systems. It is not a far reach to see a parallel with the Sethian Gospel of Judas and its sympathetic view of the betrayer's place in redemption. If the Sethians are as much about that alternative origin as the encyclopedia articles suggest, then the Gospel of Judas is a nearly-obvious interpretation of Jesus' betrayal from the Sethian point of view.

Why does this matter for us in our modern day? That depends on each person's interest in assessing the older texts that are presented as alternative gospels. I have mentioned before that I see some of these "alternative gospels" as coming from a stage in which the first Jewish-Christian evangelists met other cultures. While the New Testament shows us the Jewish disciples grappling with the Gentiles' non-Jewishness, it looks to me as though we see the opposite happening in some of the alternative gospels. We see non-Jewish cultures grapple with Jesus' Jewishness, or re-interpret Jesus within their own cultural and philosophical references. 

Because I have not at this point made any study of Sethians for their own sake, my knowledge of them is limited. Their worldview in the Gospel of Judas -- with layers of different generations/emanations and their respective divine beings -- comes across to this novice as complicated, tedious, and contrived. My underlying interest is where this puzzle piece fits into the classical world's understanding of Jesus. With its reliance on figures such as Barbelo and Yaldabaoth, the puzzle piece fits outside of the area that is bounded by Jewish Scriptures or grounded in Jewish Scriptures, edging into the esoteric beliefs of some sects in the diaspora.

Sunday, July 04, 2021

Faith: A virtue that moves us

The gospel readings in church these last two weeks have made a serious contrast: Last week's reading told about Jairus' daughter and the unnamed woman who touched Jesus' cloak; this week's reading told about the unbelief of the people in Jesus' hometown of Nazareth. 

"Your faith has made you well." -- I've often privately in my heart found fault with that line of thinking: It was the power and benevolence of God that made her well! But Jairus benefited from it because he acted on his belief in it. The unnamed woman who touched his cloak benefited from it because she acted on her belief in it. Few in Nazareth did the same. So there is a real sense in which faith was a vital factor. It is true enough that God is not limited by our own thoughts; however, my relationship with God may be limited by my thoughts about God. 

The last few years I have been more like the hometown crowd in Nazareth. (Has the church become like the hometown crowd in Nazareth -- too accustomed to Jesus to see what is happening?) I find myself wondering about the line between the temptation of cynicism and whether it verges on maligning God's character. 

May I see Jesus again through the eyes of those who are not over-familiar.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Gospel of Judas: Geography and Named Places

Some time ago I ran a series cataloging and measuring different points about the Biblical gospels and the alternative gospels. This included an analysis of the extent to which they were rooted in the physical world of geography and named places. At that time that I ran the series, the Gospel of Judas was still somewhat new to an English translation and there had been recent disputes over the translation and meaning of various parts of the text. With some time having gone by, I'd like to add the Gospel of Judas to the analysis. 

In the surviving text, there is one reference to a named place in the earthly world: a single reference to Judea: "One day he was with his disciples in Judea," very close to the beginning of the text as we have it, setting the scene for what follows. 

For those who are used to the Biblical gospels, the entire surviving text containing a single mention of one geographical region is relatively little grounding in the physical world. Though to take the Gospel of Judas on its own terms, it is relatively little interested in the earthly world, and might take exception to the Biblical gospels for how little reference they make to spirit-beings, aeons, and generations -- without a single reference to the angel or spirit-being Saklas among the four of them.

Ultimately, the Gospel of Judas has a different focus, and takes place in a different spiritual setting than the canonical gospels. There is more to be said of the Gospel of Judas in general; this focuses simply on the geography.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Word Cloud: The Gospel of Judas

Some years ago I made word clouds of the better-known non-canonical documents that are sometimes labeled as gospels. I have always intended to revisit that and add a word cloud for the Gospel of Judas. Finally, this week, I found the opportune block of time. The source text used is the National Geographic Society 2008 text (the second edition).

created at TagCrowd.com

The threshold cutoff for the cloud was the top 50 most frequent word. This one has some points of interest compared to some other documents previously reviewed. 

  1. While Jesus is a major focus, his name takes second place in the word rankings, mentioned less often than "generation". 
  2. "Aeon" is mentioned more than "God". 
  3. The only disciple whose name is in the top 50 words is Judas. 
  4. While other disciples do not make the list, the spirit-being Saklas gets a fair amount of mention and makes the cutoff.
  5. In the Gospel of Judas, one of Jesus' most common actions is laughing, often at the expense of people around him. 
  6. When the name Judas occurs, it is not accompanied by a disambiguation-phrase based on an awareness of more than one man named Judas in the narrative.
  7. The phrase "Holy Spirit" does not occur in the translation that I have. Neither do the names Mary, Joseph, Peter, James, John, Matthew, Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, or any of the less-commonly-known disciples, as far as I can find. 
  8. As in more familiar texts, "Truly" here is a translation of Amen, according to the notes from the translator(s).

Thank you for reading!

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Be still 2021

For the last few years, the world seems increasingly loud and chaotic. Intentionally so. As if to drown out thought, or the clarity of thought that comes with calmness. As God's children, we can offer a measure of peace to this world. As God's children, He offers a measure of peace to us.

Be still, and know that I am God -- Psalm 46:10

He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow, and cuts the spear in pieces.
He burns the chariot in fire.
Be still, and know that I am God. (Psalm 46:9-10, AV modernized)

He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth.
He grounds the war planes and missiles
He demolishes the tanks (2021 technology)
Be still, and know that He is God.

Who listens to His voice?
Who hears His word?
Who guards the value of a moment's silence?
Be still, and know that He is God.

Sunday, June 06, 2021

The unknowability of God, and God's character

It's all about character.

Back when I taught teen Sunday school, at one point I used coins as an illustration. It's only really necessary to have two coins for the illustration: pennies and quarters are useful since the images on them are more readily recognized. 

If I hold up a penny, ask someone to look closely at the image, then ask "Who is that?", the answer comes back: Abraham Lincoln. If I do the same with a quarter, the answer comes back: George Washington. And with decent likenesses, we can answer questions from looking at them. "Who had a beard: Washington or Lincoln?" We can see that it's Lincoln. "One of them had a wig with a long strand of hair in back. Which one?" We can see that it's Washington.  

And then: I place the quarter on my thumb, flip the coin so that it spins in the air many times before I catch it, slap it face-down on my other arm in traditional coin-toss fashion, and with the coin still covered I ask one question: "Is George Washington dizzy?"

At which point they laugh but they get the point. You can tell a lot from an image. The better the image, the more you can tell. But the image is separate from the original. We could use the same quarter in a coin-toss all day, and it would never make George Washington dizzy. 

The word "character" is originally a Greek word, used in engraving and in minting coins which were made by stamping an impression. In this sense, "character" is used in a famous passage in the New Testament, discussing Jesus' relationship to God: "Who being a reflection of his glory and an impression of his substance" -- or in the words of a more familiar translation, "Who being the brightness of his glory and the express image of his person ..." (Hebrews 1:3). 

If you have ever spoken to someone who is not used to the ideas of Christianity, sooner or later we are called to explain what we mean about Jesus and God. "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father," Jesus told his disciples. And yet when Jesus died on the cross, God did not cease to exist. Much like, when I tossed the coin, George Washington was not dizzy. The analogy is imperfect but it makes its point.

We can look at the image and learn about things unseen. It is often the purpose of an image: to make known or make present things that are not seen. The better the image, the more clearly we see what we could not otherwise see. Jesus was born in a certain time and place in human history; there was a time before he existed. Much like the coins were minted long after the time of the persons represented. Yet it is a key part of Jesus' essence: whoever has seen him has seen the Father. 

That is my two cents' worth for the day.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Prophecy and the Spiritual Relevance of the Promised Future

[On the topic of prophecies of the future] In fact, if it weren't spiritually relevant in some way to the time period before the fulfillment, there would be no point in God revealing it. -- St Aron of the neighboring blog Undivided Looking

On Aron's blog recently, he touched on a question that I had not given thought: Why does God give us prophecy? I had considered what I saw in Scripture when there were accounts of previous prophecies being fulfilled: that people might (or might not) recognize a prophecy as it was fulfilled; that people might (or might not) consider God faithful as he kept his promises. Those things are true enough, and either look backward at fulfilled prophecy, or look to the present to see if any signs are occurring at the time. But Aron's comment added more depth to that: the idea that God likely intends some spiritual benefit to us in the meantime. My thoughts turned to how very likely that is, and what spiritual benefits may come:

  • Hope - The expectation of justice and peace can sustain hope
  • Preparedness for adversity - Physical preparation leads us to to be ready with prudent reserves of earthly supplies; spiritual preparation may lead us to treasure Christ in our hearts, or to keep our treasures in heaven, and be mentally prepared for both physical and spiritual hardship
  • Peace - The recognition of God's plans can bring peace to our hearts that insulates us against the chaos in the world
  • Confidence - Trust in God's promises can bring us boldness and a willingness to act even when things seem bleak
  • Faith - Recognizing God's providence, God's compassion, God's mercy can empower us to see the future more calmly and wisely
  • Joy - A foretaste of the feast to come can bring us a moment of joy now as a down payment on the joy of the future

For the promised future: Thanks be to God!

Sunday, May 23, 2021

"Give your church, Lord, to see days of peace and unity"

On Pentecost each year, the churches to which I belong usually sing a particular hymn with a prayer that calls for the peace and unity of the church. In practice, unity comes from having one leader. I believe that the only possible unity of the church comes from recognizing one leader: Christ. And yet Christ's presence is not a physical, visible, tangible presence. The leadership vacuum is variously filled in ways that create either separation (you go your way and we'll go ours) or turf wars where one group believes that others owe them allegiance. It is easy to look at teachings that divide us. Is it the teachings, or is it the attitude? If each group believes it is infallible or inerrant, it is closed not only to correction but also to other understandings. By the way, mention of infallible or inerrant may have the surface appearance that it is meant to discuss Rome or fundamentalists, but it is not intended that way; my experience is that all groups believe that their distinctive teachings are beyond dispute. 

It is human nature to believe we are right, to trust our own thoughts even when we have reason to double-check them. Whenever we are proved to have been wrong, it is easy to dismiss that as a mistake, as a product of a temporary and unusual situation -- instead of part of the human condition where it is all too common to be missing important information or to be swayed to an error in judgment.

And so this year I would add to the prayer: 

Give your church, Lord to see days of true humility
Guide us then to seek you Lord, unity within  your fold.
Lord have mercy!


Sunday, May 16, 2021

Some areas where our culture can grow: Faith, hope, and love

In Christian values, the greatest virtues are faith, hope, and love; the greatest of these is love. These are in stark contrast to the fear, apocalyptic expectations, and hatred that have seeped into the culture. I will admit that I have underestimated the value of faith, hope, and love many times. There is a corner of my mind that is skeptical of them as virtues compared to (say) honesty or courage. Yet people can have honesty and courage while doing things without love and without hope. Honesty and courage are virtues that can be shared by hero and villain alike. And so faith, hope, and love are the type of virtue that will give us the better direction than we would have otherwise.

"Faith" as a virtue was often a relationship-word, something similar to trust. Without faith or trust in someone or something, what remains is a free-for-all, a street brawl, a power struggle. There is no peace without faith in something. It remains to be seen if faith in each other is possible without shared values. Is our shared humanity enough to help our culture? Possibly, if we insist that we do in fact share humanity, and cease dehumanizing each other.

Hope is important as an antidote to despair. Actions of despair, "desperate" actions, have a reputation as showing bad thought, being rash and destructive. Despair prevents us from thinking clearly, prevents us from seeing solutions or from working toward them. Despair is the voice of self-sabotage; hope is the prerequisite for a solution or a reconciliation. Hope can build on the observation that life keeps trying to find a way forward, that people continue working to solve problems, that few people genuinely wish harm on their neighbor. Hope can be a thoughtful hope, considering how many imagined catastrophes have never come to pass, or have fizzled before they materialized.Those who hope in the Lord hope still more.

Taking a stand for the virtue of "love" seems awkward or embarrassing; it's easier to discuss "kindness" (which is also lacking far too often). And "love" can have unintended overtones; it may be helpful to think of it, at the most modest level, as a vested interest in the well-being of another. We do have a vested interest in each others' well-being. There can be more to love than that, but I do not see how there can be less. 

There was a popular commentator who would often say that he chose hope: that giving up is easy, and that hope was a conscious choice (or words to that effect). Let me make a conscious choice for hope.

Sunday, May 09, 2021

Unexpected moments

I know for a fact that this photo is not altered because I took it myself.

That's my chopping block as the background, though I no longer remember what I chopped before the bell pepper that left the little scrap. (I'd considered using the photo for an April 1 post some year when April 1 is suitably far from Holy Week, with a premise that it was an apparition of the smiley-face emoji.)

Lately I have been struggling with maintaining Christian hope toward the future while looking at the amount of dark in the world. And, sure, the smiley-pepper is not exactly a game-changer. But it is the kind of thing I can easily miss if I am focusing only on "worthier" things. 

Fellowship is built one day at a time. Consensus is built one conversation at a time. There is much darkness; perseverance is a virtue well-suited to dark times. And in the middle of dark times, sometimes we need to come up for air. Even that can be a moment of shared humanity.

Sunday, May 02, 2021

An Ecclesiastes kind of day

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
What profit has a man of all his labor which he takes under the sun?
One generation passes away, and another generation comes: but the earth abides forever.
The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to his place where he arose. (Ecclesiastes 1:1-4)

Some days my efforts here "under the sun" seem more empty than others. I once heard the human condition referred to -- not so eloquently as above -- as "arranging deck chairs on the Titanic." Even on the Titanic, there were a few stolen moments of humanness, of compassion and kindness. To moments of kindness!

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Good Shepherd Sunday: Calm waters and good news

As always on Good Shepherd Sunday, the readings and sermon focused on the Lord as our Shepherd who cares for us, who holds back the wolves of the world on behalf of the sheep. This morning's sermon had an unusual twist toward the end: things that a good sheep should do. My thoughts went in a different direction than the minister's, though that was an interesting aspect to consider. 

What does a good sheep do? It doesn't try to fight the wolves on its own without backup. It doesn't go far away from the shepherd. It listens for that voice calling back. It spends time belonging to the sheep. It enjoys the green pasture and the calm water. And as much as it should do these right things, it can realize that not all depends on one sheep alone. 

What if we find ourselves in a place where we are the shepherd to someone else? We learn their names. We provide for their needs -- including safety, security, and belonging. Otherwise why should they listen to our voice? The world has something of a scorched-earth feel right now. I think there is a place for a sanctuary: Oasis evangelism. 

Sunday, April 18, 2021

We cannot serve both God and _____

"No one can serve two masters." -- Jesus

Some years ago in the workplace, for a time it was not clear who was my immediate supervisor. When someone comes and tells you to do something, do they have the right? If you're too busy to take two assignments, who has to wait? Who has first claim on the time? The answer matters.

Jesus originally made the point that no one can serve both God and money. Still, I imagine he would want us to apply it more broadly; money might be a common competitor but it's hardly the only one. No one can serve two masters effectively, God and _____ (anything else). So what are other things that claim our allegiance? No on can serve both ...

God and ego is another way to complete that thought.
God and control.
God and partisanship.
God and ... something not as important, really.

"Seek first the kingdom of God ... all these things will be added."

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Times when human evil was reversed by God's grace

There are times when we look at certain problems in the world -- there is no shortage of them -- and it looks like evil winning. I find it encouraging to look at times when evil looked like it won, but God reversed it so that even the evil ended up serving the good. Here are a few times:

  1. Human evil: Joseph's brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt.
    Reversed: God uses Joseph's position to save his brothers and many others.

  2. Human evil: Caiaphas and Judas, among others, conspire to have Jesus executed on false charges. As Caiaphas said, "It is better that one man should die for the people than that the whole nation should perish." So an innocent man was brutally executed: crucified, died, and buried.
    Reversed: God raised Jesus from the dead, giving hope first to his own nation, and then to all nations.

  3. Human evil: Saul of Tarsus travels the far and wide to destroy the good news, having secured authorization to arrest people for faith in Jesus.
    Reversed: God explains it to him that he's on the wrong side, and so he (now known as Paul) travels far and wide to praise God and extend the good news.

  4. Human evil: Eventually Paul he falls prey to those who think as he once did, and is arrested for his faith in Jesus.
    Reversed: Paul uses his time in prison to write some of his more famous letters, and uses even his court appearances to show his faith.

In some ways it is unfair to discuss Joseph or Paul alongside Jesus; they cannot be held to the same standard. Yet at no time did a mere mortal have his outcome depend on his own action. Still, their human faithfulness -- the perseverance in hope, and in confidence in God the Father -- was vindicated, and God's light was more visible because of their faith.

Sunday, April 04, 2021

God has given faith by raising Christ from the dead

God has given moral guidance throughout the ages. God has shown his glory in all of creation. But at times this seems unrelated to me and to my life. Does my life matter at all, or is it "Meaningless, meaningless!" as someone wiser than me has said? But one wiser than Solomon has said differently. There is forgiveness both for me and for those who have wronged me. There is healing and peace. There is reconciliation and, through it, fellowship. There is hope in the face of death because God does not abandon us in the grave. God has raised Jesus from the dead. 

Sometimes in my mind, I imagine my eventual memorial service. Did Jesus do the same? His was a special case: only a few short days had passed since his death and burial; the friends and disciples who had traveled with him to Jerusalem were still in town. After his resurrection, Jesus sought his friends and disciples, and renewed his fellowship with them. There were reconciliations to work through, absent friends to seek. But mostly a roll-back of the bad news of death, with the almost-unimaginable good news of resurrection. When it's all of us, it will probably be easier to imagine. Until then, my life now is changed by the hope that it brings. 

Or as Dr Mariottini put it so well on his blog this morning

The experience of the disciples of Jesus following his death upon the cross is similar to the experience of every man and woman today. On Calvary, the only message that the hearts of the disciples could read was: "Christ was defeated." But, on the first day of the week, the day when Jesus came out of the grave, the true happy message of the Gospel came through: "Christ defeated death."

Christ is risen!

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Palm Sunday does not last - so why celebrate it?

On Palm Sunday we celebrate Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We may even participate in the celebration of those crowds by bringing palm branches to celebrate in the same way that they did. And the sermons of the week generally focus on how fickle the crowds, how clueless the crowds, how we are no different ourselves. True enough, but consider this:

We were celebrating the right person at the wrong time. We were celebrating the triumph we hoped for -- which seemed like the world to us -- without recognizing how small it was in scope compared to the real one. God has better planned than we have imagined; that does not make it wrong to celebrate. It's a foretaste of the feast to come. Then we did it blindly, destined to be confused and disappointed. Now we do it knowingly. If we celebrated a small triumph, unknowing, how much more should we celebrate a greater triumph. If that first celebration faded, the next one will continue. It is right to celebrate. It is advent all over again, in the sense of celebrating the one who is coming.

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Why I can find grudges appealing (not advocating them, but being honest about them)

Since Lent is the season of repentance, I'll own one of my struggles: I know how to carry a grudge. As I try to put down certain grudges, I am learning an uncomfortable thing: I am carrying certain grudges because I don't want to let go of them. In some cases there was irreparable harm done to someone, whether myself or others close to me. Letting go of that kind of grudge seems like letting go of the fact that the "bad guys" got away with it. Isn't it easier to forgive the villain if the villain has been caught and humbled? I do not have the same reaction to a villain who is successfully masquerading as an angel of light. 

If the reader has no comparable experiences, consider the famous grudge pursued by the movie character Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride. He watched someone kill his father; he was too little to do anything about it. His grudge was based on the certainty that his father was worth avenging, that killing his father was wrong, that wrong deserved to be challenged and stopped. In some of the grudges I struggle with, I have not yet found how to let go of the grudge while holding onto the certainty that wrong deserves to be challenged and stopped.

Not all of my grudges are about irreparable harm. I also find it hard to release a grudge if I expect the wrong will happen again, or if the wrong was intentional, for example if there was spite involved.

In different ways, the same point comes up: some grudges feel like unfinished business: like the work that comes before forgiveness is not complete. For now, the best I have found is to notice the common threads, and give voice to what needs saying. I'll stick with the fictional example and name what is true for the people involved: Inigo's father did not deserve to die; he deserved better. The person who killed him did wrong, deserved to be ashamed of his actions, and deserved to be held accountable for his actions. I wonder, how much is that groundwork part of the distinction between being forgiven and getting away with it. What of Inigo; did he deserve the obligation of righting that wrong? Is it a bad or good thing to have that obligation?

Prayer: Lord, grant me discernment to forgive truly, to speak honestly, to set aside any mere resentment or bitterness, and to do unto others as I would have them do toward me.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

The Value of Meditation

"Consider the lilies of the field." -- Jesus

"Whatever is good ... think on these things." -- St Paul

Passion flower: original in Inkscape, 2021.
It is roughly a year ago now that the pandemic gained enough traction to affect daily life. I still remember shortages of all kinds of food, shortages of tissues and toilet paper, even a week or two where the store had no milk -- until people figured that it made no sense to panic-buy something so perishable. Much of what happened at this time last year was driven by fear or its marathon-running cousin anxiety.

I found it was not the scarcity that made the days seem bleak so much as the long-running anxiety and confinement. I find not just wisdom but also healing in Jesus' instruction to consider the lilies of the field. The flower in the nearby drawing is called a passionflower or a maypop. As a rookie artist, this is the first time I have been able to do justice to a passionflower, though hardly the first time I have tried. "Not even Solomon in all his splendor" could match the beauty of the wild. It helps me to consider that the most valuable things in life do not come from prosperity or safety. Creation has mesmerizing beauties. The good shepherd leads us; this is one of those green pastures. He restores my soul.

That is the value of meditation. May I consider it as essential as sleep.

Sunday, March 07, 2021

The Sheep and the Goats: The Hero of the Parable

I've gained some insights by looking at Jesus' parables through the lens of popular story-telling. If a story is "A hero's struggle against an obstacle to reach a goal," what do we make of the parable of the Sheep and the Goats? I'm aware that there's an argument to be made that the Sheep and the Goats isn't a parable but a passing simile in an otherwise real-world account of the future; regardless it's still a narrative where the same analysis can be worthwhile.

We could look at the judge, the Son of Man, as the hero. His actions have the grandest scope available: He comes to inaugurate that blessed kingdom, to resolve all of human history, to provide the final answer for the life of each person who has lived, and ultimately to begin the Last Day when history reaches the goal that has been planned since the world began. 

And yet as we read or hear Jesus' teaching we are listening for our own names to be called, our own fates to be decided. The way Jesus presents it, it's not just his story but the fulfillment of all of our own stories as well. Jesus directs us to focus back on our daily lives: what kind of life have we lived? If we analyze our lives as a story, were we the "hero"? And here the story analysis needs a check: the traditional "hero" may be someone who is focused on his own life, his own goals, his own victories and his own excellence. Our hero may have an impressive list of achievements, may have attained a certain status or recognition. 

These traditional hero goals are not the kinds of actions which Jesus recognizes. "I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me. I was sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to me." In a story, we want to know what motivates a person, gives them the tenacity to pursue their goal, or even chooses their goal for them? For all the actions here, it's compassion, it's mercy, it's love. The only true "super-power" that is recognized in this story is love. 

Wednesday, March 03, 2021

A question about fasting and Lent

The other day someone asked me about Lent: If a person gives up something for Lent, is it ok to substitute something else to make that easier? It's an interesting question so I thought I'd check around for peoples' thoughts here.

Off the top of my head, my own thoughts were: 

  • If something given up for Lent is bad in itself, then replacing it with something good or even neutral would be a good thing. But replacing it with a different kind of bad is no sacrifice at all. 
  • If something given up for Lent is good and the fast is for the sake of self-denial, self-control, or otherwise setting boundaries for ourselves, then any substituting could undermine the whole effort.

I would be interested to hear other peoples' thoughts on that.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, Lost Son: Looking at the Hero of the Parables

Recently I have been taking an on-line course in story-telling. I may use it for writing, though the course instructor comes from a background in movies and performing arts. The instructor has a basic definition of a story that raises some interesting questions: 

Story: a hero's struggle against an obstacle to reach a goal. 

Let's grant that as a working definition and look at Jesus' "parables of the lost" through that lens. 

The lost sheep

Some things are obvious: The hero is the shepherd. The obstacle is the sheep's running off. The goal is the safe return of the sheep. The hero's motive drives the story: the hero values the sheep. The key point of interest is that the shepherd has reason not to bother, but cares anyway. That is Jesus' picture of God: surely we can think of reasons why he might not care -- and while we're lost it will look like he does not care -- but he cares anyway.

The lost coin

Another story with the same point: valuing what is lost, and the belief that what is lost is worth the trouble to find.

The prodigal son

We could look at this story from more than one angle. 

If the hero is the father, then the struggle is hidden in the waiting and the loving, and the goal is reconciliation. And yet the action does not follow the father, and from the story's viewpoint we might look somewhere else for the main character.

If the hero of the story is the lost son, he has a lot of struggles. He begins the story by gaining money and losing his father as his goal is wealth. He struggles with whether joy comes from material pleasure. Whether acceptance comes from riches. Whether riches are sustainable without production of more. Whether security is possible alone without human connections. By the end of the story, the son has reversed entirely: he has lost all the money but regains his father. There is a celebration. He has gained acceptance without wealth, joy without material pleasure, and security through human connection.

In what sense is the lost son the hero? He's not a traditional hero: his actions lead from bad to worse, and the only thing he contributes to the happy ending is trusting, hoping, that he will receive some kind of welcome as he returns home.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Self-love and self-denial

Jesus taught us that the most vital commandments were to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. The key to a healthy love of neighbor is a healthy love of self. So the self-love isn't about ourselves alone: it's about our neighbor too. It's about the nature of love: a connection of value and affection and goodwill, so that this love builds a community where people are treasured and flourish.

But in the harshness of Lent we hear, "Take up your cross, deny yourself and follow me." No one can want to deny the self; it's against the nature of desire and the nature of the self. Despite the harshness, I continue because I want to know Jesus. No other person in the long history of the world has captured my attention so thoroughly, gained my trust so convincingly, that I find myself believing him that he is the way, the truth, and the life. 

In one sense, I can follow him as I read the accounts of his life: he goes to Jerusalem for the Passover. He goes to the Mount of Olives and prays. And he faces the prospect of death and prays that gut-wrenching prayer: "Not my will but yours." He denies himself. It's not possible for person with a healthy mind and body to want death. He can only take up a cross after denying himself. He doesn't ask us to do anything he hasn't done. He wasn't asking us to follow him like a facebook narcissist who wants to ramp up his follower count. He asks us to follow him and we're all in it together. Even the self-denial builds fellowship.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

What is Valentine's Day good for in a pandemic?

It's easy to be dismissive of Valentine's Day. (Especially easy in the middle of a record-breaking winter storm in the middle of other crises.) Chocolate and flowers: candy and eye-candy. But like most easy dismissals it's also shallow. In the same things we could see easy proof that there is good in the world, and that it doesn't take much effort to make a day better. Gentle recognition that we see value in each other. An understood language of thoughtfulness -- an etiquette of kindness.

So today I'd like to honor simple expressions of kindness and thoughtfulness: 

  • A card
  • A text
  • A treat
  • Listening
  • Time together

Each one has its part in building a kinder and more civil world. It's about intentional kindness, and it matters.

Sunday, February 07, 2021

First they came for Q-Anon, but I am not a Q-Anon. Now what?

Over the last few months, I've been reading more political research than I can usually stomach, mostly in an effort to satisfy myself on various questions that have come up before, during, and since the November 2020 elections (none of which is my point here). I've read and watched videos from people of various political stripes, including of course libertarians (which was as far afield as I'd gone before) but also some different varieties of Q-Anon'ers (which initially gave me the urge to watch my back, but it turns out they aren't quite what I expected).

To be clear, I've met a handful that I think have been separated from their good judgment; I've met more that I'd class as eccentric. I've also met a handful of skilled researchers who still generally believe at least one eccentric thing, but make positive contributions in other areas. For how grounded they are, I see it as something of a bell curve there. 

Here's the thing: I don't see their bell curve as so very different than any other group's bell curve. For Q-Anon, the far edge of the bell curve thinks that there are organized rings of pedophiles in D.C., Hollywood, the Roman Catholic church, and other places. For Republicans, the far edge of the bell curve may be the ones who imagine Antifa thugs around every corner; for Democrats it may be the ones who imagine white supremacists around every corner. I'm sure there are more candidates for the outlier beliefs, but I'm hoping the examples suffice to make the point: at the far edge of the bell curve, our fear and distrust can get the better of us, and we can imagine something as common without a lot of evidence for that belief. And the slightest evidence that the problem exists somewhere is magnified and distorted by that fear and distrust, until it becomes easy to believe the worst about people because we hate them, and hate them because we already believe the worst about them, in a self-reinforcing perspective-proof closed loop.

People are still generally more skeptical of Q-Anon than other groups, and to some extent I can understand that. I'm writing here to humanize them, though, so I will talk about one way in which I can relate. One main thread of the Q-Anon's is a deep distrust of the official narrative in the major media outlets. On that count I can sympathize for reasons I've discussed before and won't rehash now. Lots of people do not have a trusted voice that has enough power to speak for them effectively. That alienation can leave people susceptible, suggestible, depending on their temperament. From their point of view, a "conspiracy theory" is the belief that unethical people keep quiet about it. So every criminal activity that involved more than one person was also a conspiracy, and every unethical maneuver that involved more than one person was also a conspiracy. I've come across some Q-Anon'ers who have believed far more than proved; I've also seen a few who have done some commendable research on unearthing real-world situations of people who are doing unethical or illegal things and keeping quiet about it.

I write this in an effort to humanize the Q-Anon'ers, not just the ones who are good researchers but even the ones who are lost in a "sheep without a shepherd" kind of way. Who has never succumbed to the urge to believe the worst about their enemies? It's human. We don't need more ostracism; we need more connection. We don't need more blame; we need more empathy. And we certainly don't need a scapegoat; we need humility. Every time we say "those people" cannot be reached, evil laughs at getting a potential two-fer.

So if they come for Q-Anon, I will say something even though I am not a Q-Anon.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Loving the world: as I love myself

There is a real sense in which our calling, as Christians, is to love the world. When God saved the world, we are told that his motive was not duty or obligation, but love. The ability to see us as we were meant to be is love; the inability to see someone in that light is a lack of love. "Love is blind" is not quite right; love has the ability to see the possible, to connect us. Ultimately we become more like whoever shares that connection with us.

In all the stories about superheroes and supervillains, the two groups have comparable abilities; the difference between a hero and a villain is a matter of heart. The meaningful difference is not their prowess but their kindness. Our participation in saving the world is by loving the world. So where can I start? 

"Love your neighbor as yourselves." For that to be true, there must be legitimate self-love: not fawning self-absorption, nor a cold and clinical duty to self. I picture a grounded warmth in the heart, and a willing commitment to our own well-being, our own inclusion, our own consideration in matters that affect us. For us to be able to "love our neighbors as ourselves" requires first that we love ourselves: that we put aside any fawning or coldness or self-directed harshness and instead love in a meaningful way, with a consideration we would be glad to receive from others. It is the ground on which I can meet others; if I have not formed the right heart toward myself then I will not be able to do form it toward others. 

Once I am grounded in love as God intends, I can love the world one neighbor at a time.