Sunday, December 31, 2023

Best of the Blogroll 2023

I like to welcome the New Year on this blog by a grateful recognition of the posts from the prior year which most enlightened, edified, or uplifted me, from my blog friends and neighbors. Here are the best-loved posts of 2023:  

  • At Common Denominator, one of Ken Schenck's "recap" style posts caught my eye with acknowledging the need to bridge the gap between church academics and congregations
  • At Glory To God For All Things, there is an unfortunately persistent blog malfunction with the permalinked page, but one of my favorite posts there does come up early on the search results for The Way of Shame and the Way of Thanksgiving. In better news, the permalink is more functional for his Thanksgiving reflection on The Communion of Giving Thanks, with its unexpected insight for our understanding of atonement. 
  • At Hyperekperissou, Phil Snider continued with a series of book reviews. I find myself intrigued by the "home monastery" idea presented recently as a practical guide to a contemplative life. 
  • Michael Kelley at Forward Progress has been on a roll this year. My first favorite (in publication order) was 2 errors when thinking about God's work in our lives. I am more likely to fall into the first error, and hadn't honestly considered it to be a problem. Food for thought. Then he adds some imaginative narrative to help moderns like us understand an old passage of Isaiah about the made-to-order god from the idol shop. Finally, discusses ways to increase our love for God's Word with an eye to the practical, faithful, and humble. 
  • Joe Hinman (Metacrock) is always on the front lines with his interactions with atheists. As such, he often meets people whose shield against faith is The Amalekite Problem. Here Joe works to take the conversation beyond "the Amalekites were jerks". 
  • The Pocket Scroll drew me in recently with a conversation about Your Own Personal Theologians
  • Roger Pearse is often my connection to the study of historical documents, given my love of primary sources. He writes on the possible discovery of one of Valentinus' letters among those of Basil of Caesarea. And (for the historically-minded) a fascinating find of another lost manuscript (miscatalogued, really) recovered from the Vatican library about the reign of Julian the Apostate. Unlike many recovered manuscripts, this one is not a mere scrap but weighs in at 16 pages. 
  • Reading Acts tends to offer reviews of books I might not otherwise have seen, and the shortlisted favorite book review this year is John Goldingay's Proverbs. It does what I believe should be the main focus of Biblical scholarship: extending and deepening our understanding of the original material. According to Goldingjay, Proverbs seeks to enable people to learn wisdom for a life lived faithfully and in awe of Yahweh -- and so his book adopts the same goal. Topics include the ethical aspect of wisdom, the life-enhancing ability of wisdom, and the work needed to acquire it. 
  • At Sun and Shield, Martin LaBar gives a gentle rejoinder for our pessimistic age in The Problem of Good

With sincere appreciation for all the Christian bloggers who bring God's light to the online community, thank you for blogging in 2023. All the best for 2024!

Monday, December 25, 2023

Merry Christmas

It's been a rough year. May God's goodness and presence be visible to us all as the neighborhood Christmas lights. 

"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth: peace, goodwill to all!" 

Sunday, December 17, 2023

The good news in its Jewish roots: "Here is your God!"

Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John took different approaches to telling the account of Jesus' life. Matthew and Luke start before Jesus' birth; Mark starts when Jesus is an adult; John starts with metaphysics and philosophy. And yet all four place one vital point toward the beginning: 

A voice of one crying in the wilderness, "Prepare the way of the LORD, make his paths straight." Matthew 3:3, Mark 1:3, Luke 3:4, John 1:23 (Isaiah 40:3). 

That famous passage of Isaiah was singled out as a vital part of understanding Jesus by all four of the gospel writers. That passage of Isaiah is not mainly about the messenger that we call John the Baptist preparing the way for the Lord. In Isaiah -- as in the gospels -- we see the forerunner mainly for the forerunner's message: 

You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain;
You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout: 
Lift it up, have no fear, say to the towns of Judah: "Here is your God!" (Isaiah 40:9)

That "good news" is the basis of  Bible's four gospels. When Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote, much of the Jewish community spoke Greek. Here is that passage (Isaiah 40:9) in the classical Greek Bible used in the Jewish community: 

In Isaiah's translation there, we already see the Greek word that comes to us as "evangelize". Isaiah's message is picked up by John the Baptist, then by the four evangelists, and down through the ages to us. God is here. It is our generation's turn to lift up our voices and have no fear. As St Paul mentions, "How can they believe who have not heard?"

Sunday, December 10, 2023

Who do we say that he is? "Prepare the way of the LORD"

Beginnings are important. Researchers and problem-solvers try to trace things to their beginnings. Authors and speakers know that their first words will set the tone for all that follows. The Gospel of Mark chooses this quote as the launching point for explaining Jesus:
"a voice of one calling in the desert, prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him." (Mark 1:3)
When Mark identified John the Baptist with Isaiah's "voice calling in the desert", Mark names John as the herald announcing the coming of the LORD (see Isaiah 40). The word "Lord" in our language or in ancient Greek may be ambiguous, but the word "LORD" in the original Hebrew was not ambiguous at all. It was the holy name of God, not to be casually pronounced, a name reserved for God. When Mark identified "the voice calling in the desert" as John the Baptist, Mark thereby implies that the one John announces is the long-awaited LORD from Isaiah's prophecy, the God whose arrival was good news, "good tidings", or (in older English) gospel. 

There are accounts of Jesus' life that introduce Jesus at his birth. Mark's introduction starts with his identity. Over the centuries we may have lost sight of the boldness of that introduction, but a first-century Jewish audience would probably get his point: the most joyful event in the world was unfolding, one which could not leave the world unchanged. God's arrival in our world is the good news, and the kingdom of God is among us. 

Sunday, December 03, 2023

"Christianity is all about guilt" -- fact-check

In a message forum this week I saw someone post that "Christianity is all about guilt" and went on from that basis to the rest of her message. But she lost me at the start with the claim that "Christianity is all about guilt." That does not match Christianity as I know it, learn it, and experience it in the church. 

I understand there is room to ask: Who gets to say what Christianity is about? But for a Lutheran like me (we're the Sola Scriptura bunch), that is answered in the Bible where we have received what we know of Christ and the apostles, passed down to us from those who knew first-hand. 

So if I take my favorite freeware search tool and ask it to give me all the Bible verses containing the word "guilt", I get these results. If you were prepared for a long list, you'll be disappointed. Here they are: 

The first point that caught my eye is that there are only 2 verses in the whole "King James" translation that contain the world "guilt": two verses in the book of Deuteronomy, and none in the New Testament or anywhere else in the Old Testament. Looking closely at the two (2) verses found, the search results show the word italicized, which is how it flags the reader that a word was added by the translator. That is, the only 2 occurrences were considered to be implied in the translator's judgment, rather than being part of the original text. That's far from being something that Christianity is "all about"; it has only a slim excuse to be included in the conversation. 

But what about Christianity's emphasis on forgiveness? What's forgiveness about, if not guilt? First a perspective-check: forgiveness is a positive, healing action, so using an emphasis on forgiveness as a pretext to say there's something negative is a distortion. 

Forgiveness is usually associated with sin or wrongdoing, whether the person has the feeling of guilt or not. So I ran another search for "sin" (including variations like sin(s) and sinner(s)). I found the results interesting enough that I wanted to share the results. Below is a chart listing the books of the New Testament and the number of times "sin" was mentioned in each book. It's interesting that the book of Romans discusses it the most by far. The emphasis of Paul's letter to Rome is an outlier among the books of the New Testament. I wonder (without having a way to get the answer) whether the "all about guilt" poster's experience had an over-emphasis on that one book. 

As for the books which pass along the life and teachings of Jesus, I've previously shared a word-cloud of the 4 gospels and, reviewing that today, I see that "guilt" and "sin" are not among the top 100 most-used words in the gospels. The gospels are about the kingdom of heaven among us through the presence of Christ. 

Sunday, November 26, 2023

Christian Reconciliation: Starting within our own denominations

In Ken Schenck's recent post, he mentions

The divide between the academy and the grassroots church seems larger than ever. The academy has a tendency to be dismissive because it knows stuff, but the popular church has its own interests and is making itself heard. I have long mourned the seeming inability of the two to communicate with each other. They both need each other.

That reminded me of one of C.S Lewis' essays in which he, as an articulate member of the laity, addressed that topic by invitation. While I'm not planning to repeat his points in general, I'll mention as a starter one thing he said (paraphrased, to save me digging through my Lewis collection to lay hands on the exact words): When the pastor visited, there was a time when the layman was concerned not to reveal that he believed fewer points of faith than the pastor; now he may find himself concerned not to reveal that he believes so much more. With Lewis' light touch, he gets to the heart of many of our differences. 

And talking about our differences carries the risk of any conversation delayed, any relationship neglected: each side is likely to have more to discuss, and more frustration, than can be productively tackled in one sitting. Without a sustained effort to bridge the gap, it grows wider. 

To check in with Mr Schenck's comments again: 
A lot of scholarly banter is the process of sorting through ideas, so I suppose much of the process of this sort of scholarship does not end up going anywhere. Probably most papers at SBL, IBR (Institute for Biblical Research), or ETS (Evangelical Theological Society) end up unhelpful to anyone but the presenter.
Some of the laity use discussion boards -- and blogs -- the same way. Working through our thoughts can take time and development. Iron sharpens iron, and all that. Speaking as grassroots, I don't mind that some academic pursuits are academic (if you'll pardon flipping to another definition of the word). I appreciate how much thinking can go into a single well-distilled drop of clarity. And yet a drop of clarity about the life of Christ is worth more than a drop of clarity about the influence of Roman imperialism on Paul's letters. 

So I read Mr Schenck's thoughts as an opportunity, and reply with hopes to participate in an overdue conversation. I've collected some thoughts -- and pared back my list, to keep it conversation-sized: 
  • I'd like to see the academy more interested in the life and teachings of Jesus. I have wondered whether the search for fresh material is the driving force behind neglecting the one thing needful? 
  • I'd like to see the academy more interested in reading the Bible on its own terms. The deep-dives into historical context seemed meant to empower us to read the Bible on its own terms, yet (to the outsider here) the academy looks lost in the weeds, without coming back to read the Bible on its own terms much. When I read an academic's Bible study, it tends to dissect the material rather than magnify it. 
  • I'd like to see the academy exhibit more trust in the Bible to convey God's spiritual and moral guidance -- along with more interest in spiritual and moral guidance. (When is the last time we heard a well-reasoned, Scriptural warning against divisions and factionalism, for example? Or materials on repentance, forgiveness, amends?) It seems that the development of spiritual resources has often been left to those outside the family of faith -- leading to an erosion of trust, and in the sheep going elsewhere to be fed
  • It looks like there is a strong tendency toward credentialism. In the history of the church, there has been a steady stream of saints and spiritual leaders who were from the community rather than the academy. With modern credentialing and publishing, is the academy cutting off some of the church's resources? 
I have so much else that I could say -- and yet experience teaches that more is not always better as a first step. I'd be glad if this became a wider conversation. 

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Thankful for ...

It has been a challenging year, and this season of gratitude is a welcome reminder of what is still good. This year I am grateful for: my children, my uncle, my friends, a safe home, a steady job. I am grateful for food, and health, and relative peace. 

Wishing all a happy Thanksgiving, safe travels, and kind company. 

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Your own personal theologians

 In my morning's blog readings, MJH over at Pocket Scroll's piece caught my eye. It was based on a social media post by a professor: 

After Christ and your family, committing to a few key theologians is a profoundly life-giving enterprise. My studies have been largely framed by Augustine, Calvin, Torrance, and de Lubac. I imagine these figures will always be with me. (H/T MJH at The Pocket Scroll)

It's a little like the "Five Authors" meme that went around some years back, but without the restrictions on the number of companions. 

Outside Scripture, my theological companions are:

  1. St Athanasius - The friend who introduced me to Athanasius said he was "nearly canonical" in a context where that meant "as inspiring, and God-focused, and spirit-filled, as the best passages of Scripture". On The Incarnation is a rare work of theology: inspired insight into God's actions brings both appreciation for and understanding of God's love for us. Without a hint of a classroom or an orthodoxy-checker in sight, his thoughts set the bar for what would be called orthodoxy in the church for centuries to come. 
  2. Eusebius the Historian - His approach to reality, historicity, and context -- the epistemology of faith -- matters to me even if he isn’t ranked as a theologian, 
  3. Dietrich Bonhoeffer - For his embodiment of the principle that God should set the agenda in theology, and that Scripture should set the curriculum in Biblical Studies
  4. A.J. Heschel - His view of the Sabbath -- and by implication, the Sinai Covenant Law in general -- shows the "lost treasure" aspects of things we too often allow to be brushed off as unmodern. 
  5. Vladimir Lossky -- For not apologizing for loving beauty and mystery, for standing up for their place in serious theology in light of God's holiness.
  6. Therese of Lisieux -- To me, her life counts as theology. When St Paul wrote that we ourselves are living Scriptures (paraphrased), he could have had her in mind. I think Rome even recognized her as Doctor of the Church, which is a far shorter list than their list of saints. I've recently been pondering how to structure a liturgical service based on her writings. 
  7. J.R.R. Tolkien -- Tolkien packs deeper theology into his works, and I have in mind LOTR especially. His writings call out the worldly short-sightedness of imagining that despair is "wisdom", the companion mistakes of viewing hope as foolish and viewing humble pursuits as unworthy. He advocates humility about our knowledge, and the good that comes from taking the incalculable risk of loving an enemy. 
  8. C.S. Lewis -- While I can become frustrated that his technical theology falls into what seems like beginners' mistakes, still his compassion for everyday concerns fills an important gap and is well-done. And when he ventures into children's stories, his love of beauty, his "baptized imagination", is a glorious thing.

I'd be glad to hear of anyone else's thoughts on their companions in understanding God and Scripture. 

Sunday, November 05, 2023

The parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin

Years ago, an avid Bible student pointed out to me some encouraging features of the "Parables of the Lost" in Luke 15. The lost sheep and the lost coin have something in common: the lost do nothing at all to help their being found. The lost sheep was not seeking a shepherd. The lost coin did not hop into the dustpan. They were both oblivious to the heartache they were causing by being lost. The sheep may not have had any concept that the shepherd valued him. And the lost things also did not have any special claim to fame. The shepherd doesn't value the sheep for its performance; it's not a circus-sheep doing circus-tricks with some sort of unusual value. The sheep is not worth more or less than the next sheep. The sheep is valued just because it belongs to the flock. It is the shepherd's sheep, and the shepherd is a good shepherd, so he is bringing it back somewhere safe. In the same way the coin is not a trick coin, not more or less valuable than the next coin. It just belongs to the woman whose thoughts turn to it. 

And so we are treasured whether we know it or not. We are sought whether we realize it or not. God values us -- and we do not have to earn being valued. There is no special performance required before God values us. He is looking for our return -- hoping for our return -- every day. 

Sunday, October 29, 2023

The first casualty of war

About the growing conflict in the Middle East: 

There is an old saying that the first casualty of war is the truth. If truth is the first casualty, it doesn't fall alone. Some other early casualties are peace-of-mind, the willingness to believe that other people are decent even if they have ties to either side / the other side / both sides / neither side, the willingness to give people the benefit of the doubt, and some curiosity about why some people see things differently. The Ten Commandments definitely get broken a fair few times if we judge our neighbors too quickly. There is a temptation to listen -- and repeat -- when we may not know the facts for ourselves. We may find ourselves bearing false tales, or bearing false witness against others, or having false witness borne against us in turn. 

I think that praying for our enemies has a special relevance when there are wars and rumors of war. Any side may fall to the temptation to tell only their own side, see only their own side. May there be peace and justice in our time. Peace does not come from retaliation or escalation, or even from annihilating the opposition. Peace needs to be built, and building peace takes understanding and compassion. Where those are in short supply, let the faithful speak faithfully. 

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Rejoicing in the hope of the glory of God

I'm continuing to contemplate hope. As I study the Scriptures, I am intrigued by how strongly Paul focuses on hope in his letter to Rome. I found this passage of Scripture stretches my heart and mind in new directions: 
Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we also have access by faith into this grace in which stand, and we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. We rejoice also in our trials knowing that trials work patience, and patience experience, and experience hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit which is given to us. (Romans 5:1-5)
"The hope of the glory of God" is encouraging for me to consider. When I think of his glory, I think of the beauty of his holiness, that unique combination of power and purity at the heart of creation. It brings me thoughts of the last day, of justice, of restoration, of peace. Paul says we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. It's a glad thought, a celebration here and now. I could look forward to the glory of God the way that a child looks forward to Christmas, and my days would be better for it. 

I've read this passage before -- and I remember years ago thinking the part about "rejoicing in our trials" was nonsense. During a season of hardship, I remember people telling me that on the other side things would be better again; I remember disbelieving it. "Trials work patience, and patience experience, and experience hope." While our hope is in God, a serious trial can take our eyes off God -- and a light which is not seen is no help at all. Now that I have been through more trials in life, it makes more sense: experience also teaches hope. St Paul knew of which he spoke, given the number of hardships he had endured. Shipwrecked, arrested, imprisoned, beaten, fleeing for his life at times. He knew that eventually one of those hardships would have his name on it and be his last in this world. In the meantime, he understood: Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. It took more experience before I understood that. 

Then Paul speaks of some fulfillment of hope in this present world: "because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit which is given to us." This world has troubles; there is always need for the love of God. For an infusion into my own heart, that is a beautiful and desirable thing. I pray for the love of God to be shed abroad in my heart that way. If all of us who hope in God would have his love poured out into our hearts, and from there we pour that love into the world, then the world would change. We're human, we're fallen; it's too easy to grumble against each other and find fault with each other. Better that I should let the love of God be shed abroad in my heart by the Holy Spirit, better that I should receive that gift of love gladly. If we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, I would desire for that same peace to extend to each other as well. 

Sunday, October 15, 2023

A Living Hope

St Paul famously taught that the three greatest gifts of God's Spirit are faith, hope, and love -- and the greatest of these is love. Recently I have been studying each of these, and today am contemplating hope. To get a fresh view, I wanted a word cloud of the verses in the New Testament that discuss hope*: 

created at

The word cloud shows the words most commonly associated with hope in the New Testament by use in the same verse. In the AV ("King James") translation, "trust" is actually used as a translation of hope in many cases. The prominence of "trust" in the word cloud is because the thought or feeling of "trust" is so similar to "hope" that it can be a translator's judgment call which way to translate it. 

Paul's famous passage discusses faith, hope, and love specifically as gifts of the Spirit. The  word cloud gives us the bigger picture throughout the New Testament: the scriptures trace the reason for hope to God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, often as part of the same thought: 

Hope and God the Father

  • And have hope toward God ... that there shall be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and unjust. Acts 24:15 
  • ... the hope of the promise made of God unto our fathers: Acts 26:6 
  • ... rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Romans 5:2 
  • And hope makes not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us. Romans 5:5 
  • Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost. Romans 15:13 
  • That at that time you were without Christ ... strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world: Ephesians 2:12 
  • To whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory: Colossians 1:27 
  • Now our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God, even our Father, which has loved us, and has given us everlasting consolation and good hope through grace, 2 Thessalonians 2:16 
  • For therefore we both labor and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, specially of those that believe. 1 Timothy 4:10 
  • In hope of eternal life, which God, that cannot lie, promised before the world began; Titus 1:2 
  • That by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us: Hebrews 6:18 
  • Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy has begotten us again unto a living hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 1 Peter 1:3 

Hope and Christ Jesus

Some of the verses here were also included when discussing the Father's role in hope, though some here are new: 

  • ... God would make known what is the riches of the glory ... which is Christ in you, the hope of glory: Colossians 1:27 
  • Now our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God, even our Father, which has loved us, and has given us everlasting consolation and good hope through grace, 2 Thessalonians 2:16 
  • For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Are not even you in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at his coming? 1 Thessalonians 2:19 
  • Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the commandment of God our Savior, and Lord Jesus Christ, which is our hope; 1 Timothy 1:1 
  • Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ; Titus 2:13 
  • Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy has begotten us again unto a living hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 1 Peter 1:3 

I tend to think of hope only when I notice it is in short supply. And then, because it is in short supply I find it hard to refill. So it seems that hope is something that should be a staple in my walk of faith, and that re-reading these verses with their promises would lead to the faith in Christ that replenishes my hope. If I imagine it depends on my optimism then I mislead myself. It depends on waiting for God, and for Christ. 

* Methodology: searching for underlying Greek words elpizo and elpis by Strong numbers (G1679 or G1680 respectively). English text used an AV "King James" translation, slightly modernized. While those words are typically translated "hope" (66 times), it is also translated "trust" a number of times, and "faith" once. 

Monday, October 09, 2023

Grounding Our Faith: Touchstones

We live in uncertain times. That statement has probably been true for most times and most places in this world. The greatest of spiritual gifts are faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love. While I have often turned my thoughts to love, how often have I turned my thoughts to faith? It seems overdue to consider it better. 

There are times in the Bible when I see people turning their thoughts to the great deeds of God to kindle their faith or to anchor their faith. Some figures in the Bible seemed to remind themselves of ancient times, of the exodus from Egypt or of God's mercy to Abraham, in that light. But those events are far removed from my thoughts; I'd like to turn my thoughts to Jesus' life. 
  • Jesus speaks of God's faithfulness on the Last Day. Those who mourn will be comforted. The peacemakers will be counted as His children. The days of grief and enmity will end. God wills it, and God will accomplish it. 
  • Jesus speaks of God's providence. The birds of the air have no jobs and no worries; they have food. And not even a sparrow falls apart from God. 
  • Jesus heals our physical selves. We say that Jesus heals the sick -- true enough. Still, when people told of Jesus' healing they described things more serious than the sniffles. They spoke of healing leprosy, curing paralysis, curing blindness, curing deafness. Health and wholeness follow his touch. 
  • Jesus raises the dead. He raised Lazarus, and the daughter of Jairus, and the son of the widow at Nain. And God raised Jesus from the dead. 
Any catastrophe we may face, he can undo. These are things I can call to mind to encourage my faith. 

Sunday, October 01, 2023

Learning love from Jesus: The Gospel of Matthew

Learning to love is part of learning to follow Christ. This week I am looking at ways that Jesus shows love, reviewing the Gospel of Matthew. When I think of Christ's love my thoughts turn first to the big things: his humility, his humanity, his death for our forgiveness. These deserve their key place in Christian thought and devotion. They have world-shaping importance for our understanding of God. Trying to imagine anything in my own life comparing to that can seem prideful, even grandiose. While there are thoughts in there for us, today I want to look at some other ways in which Jesus has shown his love for us, and how he shows us a kind of love that we can reflect in our own lives. 

He called Peter and Andrew, James and John, and more disciples to follow him. He loved them by seeking them out, seeking their company, inviting them, including them in significant things, giving them importance in his life. When his relatives sought him, he recognized and honored the closeness of those who stood with him: they were his brothers. 

When crowds came to him from all over the place, he had honest unfeigned compassion for their troubles. He listened. He knew their needs, recognized their needs, met their needs. He did not turn away people who came to look for him. He loved them by welcoming them and hearing them. 

When people invited him for meals he accepted. He was willing to listen, willing to be a guest, willing to participate in other peoples' lives, willing to include and be included. He took time to be part of their lives. 

For his disciples he had an additional role in their lives: he prepared them for the future. He set their expectations of what was to come, equipped them for what they would need to do, forgave them their imperfections. He was patient with them. 

He spoke the truth with love. He did not hide his thoughts or play it safe in the face of disapproval. He found people starved for clarity and insight, for compassion and wisdom, for leadership deserving of the name. While his opponents used words as snares and traps, he used words to set people free. So many people would willingly follow someone who truly loved God. He recruited help, trained help, and sent workers into the field. He trained others to live the same life of love as he lived.  

Which is where we come into the story. On the day that the disciples asked, "Teach us to pray," I find myself wishing they had asked, "Teach us to love." Of course he did that without their asking. And yet I'd have loved to hear his answer. 

Sunday, September 24, 2023

God's generosity

Today my thoughts are on the parable of the workers in the vineyard: 

"The kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went at daybreak to hire laborers for his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them to his vineyard. He went out about the third hour [and hired more laborers without naming the price except in terms of fairness] ... Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hours, and did the same. ... Around the eleventh hour, he went out and found others ... When evening came [he paid them all the amount agreed for those who worked a full day. Some complained.] And he answered, "Friend, I do you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for the denarius? ... Are you envious because I am generous?" (Matthew 20:1-16 excerpts)

God is generous. From this parable I gather there is no second-rate heaven for those who were slow to enter the kingdom of heaven, or those who were slow to find their calling. All who answered that call are welcome: fully welcome. The kingdom of heaven is not a kingdom where we keep score against each other, and look down on some who started late or did less (and have others look down on us if they started earlier or did more). Heaven is not a place where there is status, or better-than, among those welcomed by God. Heaven is a place of fellowship, where we all enjoy God's generosity. 

The parable gets its element of surprise from being described as an earthly workplace. Whether we have a daily rate, an hourly rate, or an annual rate, we are paid for our time. Some people play that game by angling for a better rate for our time. Others play that game by angling for more time on the clock. Regardless of how a worker plays the game, the amount is in the control of the owner. The kingdom of heaven is not about being the hardest-working. It is about knowing the one in control is honest and generous. No one who sets foot in that vineyard has any risk of being treated as less than another -- at least not by the owner. May I set aside my tendency to count and account, when there is an opportunity to see someone enjoy God's generosity. 

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Jewish context of Jesus' teachings: An allusion with layers of meaning

In the church year, this Sunday's focus is forgiveness: we read about Joseph forgiving his brothers, and we read Jesus' teaching on forgiveness. Peter asked him how many times he must forgive his brother: Should he forgive him seven times? As you may know: 

Jesus said to him, I say to you not seven times: but, seventy sevens. (Matthew 18:22)

There were symbolic numbers in play. I'm not convinced that Peter meant literally 7 when he asked; the number 7 is associated already in classical Jewish culture with completeness, with Sabbath, with forgiveness and rest. So Peter's question may not have been strictly about accounting. I have never heard a preacher suggest that Jesus' answer was about accounting. There is an agreement that it is a symbolic number indicating a bottomless well of forgiveness, as solidly supported by the parable which Jesus tells next. 

Today, I would like to pause and focus on the number itself. "Symbolic" is not the same as "meaningless", and to get the full weight of meaning, it is worthwhile to stop and unpack the symbolism. "Seventy sevens" is not without precedent. We find the number used prominently in another passage: 
Seventy sevens (weeks) are determined upon your people and upon your holy city, to finish the transgression, and to make an end of sins, and to make reconciliation for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness, and to seal up the vision and prophecy, and to anoint the most Holy. (Daniel 9:24) 
That prophecy is part of a series of prophecies touching on the restoration of the Temple and the timeline when the Messiah was expected. In those "seventy sevens" we would expect transgressions to end, reconciliation to be accomplished, righteousness to be restored, and the Most Holy to be anointed. The age of God's favor toward humanity is inaugurated. It is a discussion for another day about all the nuances of Daniel's prophecy; it enough for today that Jesus' words likely would have struck his hearers as an echo of Daniel's prophecy of forgiveness, restoration, and the coming of the Holy One. 

So yes, Jesus' "seventy sevens" were symbolic. Forgiveness is placed in a context of holiness, restoration, and the world to come. When we hear the echoes of Daniel's prophecy, we hear the call to forgive until the era of the Messiah, the age "to finish transgression, to make an end to sin, to make reconciliation for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy, and to anoint the most Holy." 

Sunday, September 10, 2023

If love fulfills the law ...

Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he who loves others has fulfilled the law. For this: "You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, You shall not covet"; and any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Love works no ill to the neighbor: therefore love is the fulfillment of the law." Romans 13:8-10 
Paul comments on Jesus' teaching that love fulfills the law. When Paul is so clear, when the Bible is so clear, when Jesus himself is so clear -- if love fulfills the law, where is all the love? 

I look at myself and I know that I struggle. I can easily recognize that I owe to my neighbor -- even to my enemy -- that I do not lie about them or steal from them or kill, obviously. But love? I often act as if I could reduce my obligation to my enemy to that (not lying, not stealing, not killing). In theory, not-doing-this and not-doing-that, I don't need to interact with unpleasant people at all and can count it as a win, if my obligation is simply not to do a specific list of unkind or dishonest things. Do I actually owe an unpleasant person more than that? 

I'm tired of the hostile environment in which we live. (Is there a single group anywhere that is not the target of someone's hostility?) So my tendency is to try to sit it out and hope the storm will blow over. I've been trying to sit out a rising tide of hostility for a long time now; it's getting worse instead of better. 

Do we owe our neighbor kindness? Jesus described the Good Samaritan as an example: "Go and do likewise." If we can see that our neighbor is hurting, kindness is our calling. And who isn't hurting? 

Looking for the humility to recognize my neighbors. They're right in front of me. 

Sunday, September 03, 2023

When C.S. Lewis reads St Augustine ...

It is not often that I take my topic from Pastor Weedon's blog, but one of his recent posts definitely caught my attention, quoting C.S. Lewis: 

I am saying only that the highest good of a creature must be creaturely—that is, derivative or reflective—good. In other words, as St. Augustine makes plain [De Civ. Dei, xii, cap. I], pride does not only go before a fall but is a fall—a fall of the creature’s attention from what is better, God, to what is worse, itself.—Business of Heaven, pp. 217, 218.

That could benefit from a little unpacking. 

It seems to start with the premise that our human nature is based on God's nature, which is grounded in the belief that we are "in God's image" -- that our best and highest comes from God. He calls this "creaturely good": it is derived from God's goodness so it is "derivative" good. It reflects God's goodness so it is "reflective good." If our best and highest comes from God, derives from God, reflects God -- then becoming over-impressed with ourselves (or anything else) constitutes a fall: we turn our attention from the better (God) to the lesser. 

I would add a few thoughts. First, that turning away from God to ourselves is a loss of grace. The "loss of grace" is not some other thing that God does to us as a consequence of falling away; the "loss of grace" is another way of describing the thing we are doing to ourselves when we turn away from God: we lose that connection. If we agree that our "best and highest" comes from God, we might also agree that our whole being comes from God, that our true nature comes from God. So that in turning away from God we lose our true nature. 

Sunday, August 27, 2023

"I've been selling my soul ..."

I usually take a pass on whatever is currently trending in pop culture*. It's generally not of much interest to me, and often feels marketed, contrived, manipulated. And for purposes of this blog, I don't expect much spiritual relevance to the latest thing. So when the current viral song "Rich Men North of Richmond" came out, I took a pass. Based on the thumbnail view, I had no expectations that I would like it; it looked like I lived in a different world than he did. (I didn't notice that my attitude there was part of the problem.) But after some time as the view statistics ramped up high enough, curiosity got the better of me and I decided to give it a listen. As many reviewers of the song have said, "I did not expect that ... "

From the first line ("I've been selling my soul ...") I heard someone being honest about his struggles at a depth that is rare. I've heard all those Faust stories about someone who sells their soul, and it sounds like a crazy-outlandish premise but anyway who would ever do that? He calls himself out from the very first measure: he does it every day, and doesn't see a better choice. It's something we don't often admit to ourselves in private, much less say out loud. So the singer launches his song by voicing his own doubts and fears about whether he is selling his soul and wasting his life (with a nod to his own previous tendency to numb out with alcohol after a day like that). I watched many reactions to the song where once-skeptical listeners found themselves relating, pausing to say that was their own life too, and continuing to nod along, on the chorus even sing along. I have never seen so many people of so many different backgrounds relate to a single song. In reaction videos, as the singer continues I have seen rappers drying their eyes and metal-heads with tears streaming down their cheeks, all deeply moved that someone would honestly discuss struggles that they share. The singer's own "clearly country" appearance strengthens his point: the dawning realization of how many different people from how many different backgrounds share that struggle, that we're more alike than we are different. It's been a rare unifying moment, not just in the U.S. about around the world for the working class. As testament to its broad appeal, various fans have now made subtitles available in Spanish, French, German, and Korean. There are reaction videos available from all over the English-speaking world -- not just the usual suspects (Canada, Australia, UK) but the Caribbean and even the English-capable world with some reactions from India. 

While part of the song is a lament, the song comes with a strong voice for justice for the forgotten, the marginalized. (Had I really judged the singer before I heard him, just because of his looks and my preconceptions about someone "like that"? Yep, to be honest, I had.) The singer picks up steam as he pivots from his struggles to the system at the root of those struggles, starting with what it's like to go to a low-paying job and watch helplessly as political and corporate manipulators take away or devalue those earnings or savings. For a three-minute song it has a surprisingly wide range. He places his own despair in the context of politicians' indifference to the workers, of how the rich can get away with anything, of how the homeless are overlooked while tax money he can scarcely afford is funding excesses which he resents, to the epidemic of deaths of despair, to the totalitarian ambitions of the ruling class and the accompanying surveillance state, to the insulting condescension of those managing the system (the "rich men north of Richmond", which is to say D.C.). It's surprising that he can fit so much into such a short and relatable song; I expect that's part of why people watch it again and again. 

As I watched a good collection of reaction videos, a few things stood out. The first was how many people shared the same journey I had: at first skeptical that this fellow could say anything that I could relate to, then my breath taken away at the raw honesty with his struggles and how accurately he was articulating some of my own private thoughts, then stunned again at how fearlessly he called out the greed and corruption which put "people like me, people like you" in a situation like this. Another element was disturbingly common in the reactions: a voiced fear of saying something that would bring down the cens0rs. Apparently YouTubers can't say certain things or they will be dem0netized, losing their income for speaking their minds. It could not have been clearer to me that their lives were lived under the constant surveillance mentioned in the song's chorus. 

For my own part, if the song were mine I'd have left out the part about welfare abuse, that "taxes ought not to pay" for things that are unnecessary and make health problems worse. To be clear, I'm not ok with welfare abuse, but that topic is easily misconstrued by the well-practiced on that point. I recognize the injustice in taking someone who is struggling and coercing them to pay for someone else, particularly when we can see the system being abused. Still, the main beneficiaries of the political system are in a certain wealthy district just north of Virginia. 

The song ends where it began: back to the singer's line about selling his soul (etc, with saltier language than I use on this blog). It's a well-crafted song which makes its point that we're still back where we started. But we're less alone. We've gotten so used to staying within insulated camps, distrusting each other; this song took tens of millions of people past that. I took one look at the thumbnail for that video, thought "he's not like me", and decided not to listen to him. I was part of the problem. Once I got curious enough it turns out he is like me, and I'm glad he gave me a voice too. The divisions between us don't belong there, and accepting those divisions is a problem in itself. 

If there is anyone who hasn't seen reactions to the song yet, I'm linking a video someone has made which is a mash-up of various different reaction videos, edited to show a single play-through of the song (3 minutes 17 seconds). 

* On usually taking a pass on pop culture: I've made occasional exceptions for Harry Potter, Twilight, etc when I see pop culture striking a relevant note. I think this also deserves one of those rare exceptions for something that is clearly resonating with a lot of people. 

Sunday, August 20, 2023

Sowing faith, hope, and love: St Francis' prayer

St Francis is among my most-cherished of the Catholic-recognized saints. His well-known prayer has its roots firmly in Scripture: 
Where there is hatred, let me sow love
Where there is doubt, faith
Where there is despair, hope
St Francis' prayer names the three imperishable virtues in quick succession: first love in the place of honor, then faith and hope. St Francis' prayer here shapes itself after St Paul's teaching on the enduring virtues of faith, hope, and love. Paul's reasoning follows Jesus' teaching that love has the place of honor as the first and greatest calling, and his many encouragements to faith. St Francis' prayer also corresponds with St Peter's teachings on the reason for hope, which St Peter anchored in Christ's resurrection. 

I have long looked for ideas on how to sow those light-giving virtues either in myself or beyond. One thing I've considered is that in Scriptural roots, St Francis used the language of Jesus' parables: sowing faith, hope, and love as if they are seeds. In those parables, Jesus speaks of the word of God as the seed that is planted and takes root as new life. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus uses words to speak a series of blessings -- words that build faith and convey hope. Scripture also shows evil working in the world through words. In the account of Eden, the evil one works through words of doubt instead of faith ("Did God really say ...").  

It's a common saying that "words are cheap" when they are a substitute for action. But so often words are the only available package in which to send kindness -- or faith, or hope, or love. I believe I've under-valued them. 

Sunday, August 13, 2023

A field guide to belief systems -- and the narrative that involves us

In his new book, Joseph Hinman lays out a simple chart to demonstrate his analysis that New Atheism is a belief system: 

Chart (c) 2023 Joseph Hinman

Many people have noted that atheism and Marxism set themselves up as a replacement for religion. Hinman's chart appeals to the analytic mind by laying it out cleanly for easy analysis. While Hinman notes there is some over-simplification involved in that brief chart, he makes a case that the basic features of a belief system are filled by New Atheism in the same way that they are for Christianity (or for Marxism). I find myself tempted to adjust words here or there; still, Hinman's point stands that these systems share many of the same features and functions. Hinman worked through three examples, but it's easy enough to find more. For my own part, I tend to think of partisan politics along those lines, but the reader may have other things that are volunteering to be placed on that "belief system" spectrum. 

Do you see, on the chart, the first column with the criteria for belief systems? From another viewpoint, those same things are the criteria for dramas. It would be simple to re-label the rows in dramatic terms: conflict, victim, villain, hero, resolution, action (though in a drama we'd have saved the resolution for last). On a related point, those systems also meet the criteria for Karpman's Drama Triangle that deals with the psychological analysis of conflict: in addition to the victim we have the "villain" as the perpetrator and the "hero" as the rescuer. The fit onto Karpman's drama triangle comes with the classic warning of Karpman's triangles: often and easily the victim or rescuer slides into the persecutor / villain role before the end, in real-life examples.

One of the observable lessons of 20th Century communism was that as the old regime falls, the "rescuer" generally replaces the perpetrator at the top of another scheme as corrupt and oppressive as the one before it. The power propping up the oppressive system changed, but the oppression remained. Systems obey what I think of as the Law of Pyramids: the bigger the system, the more people are on the lowest tier and the less they are considered by those at the top. And there actually is such a thing as a class difference: it's just that it resides in the pyramid itself, and so isn't fixed by changing who is at the top.

This problem isn't unique to communism, but comes with the large scale of the system. Because of this Law of Pyramids, globalism is inherently dangerous to almost all of the population, who can never be relevant to the decision-makers. However, also because of the Law of Pyramids, the influence and decision-making will be in the hands of people who benefit from this system. 

The next point I'd like to add to the conversation is that these narratives make a claim upon our actions. To follow Hinman's chart: Those who believe the great struggle is to eliminate class differences (and that the solution is to put the party in power) then would seek to advance a certain party line. Those who believe the great struggle is to eradicate belief in God then seek to mock and ridicule religious belief. Those who believe the great struggle is against the corruption in the human heart seek to spread the message of forgiveness and renewal in Christ. In each case what we believe isn't a story outside us, but a story that involves us -- and as such, calls us to action.

I briefly mentioned globalism as the ultimate example of the Law of Pyramids: the bigger the system, the more people are on the lowest tier and the less they are considered by those at the top. What globalism has lacked has been that narrative about why people should join its cause, in fact why they should consider themselves as already caught up in its cause. In our day we can see global health and environmentalism both vying for the key spot in that narrative. They both speak of a dramatic and existential threat. Those who believe the great struggle is to eliminate global problems (and that the solution is to take away local power) then would seek to advance a certain party line. 

My thanks to Joseph Hinman for a thought-provoking look at belief systems. 

Sunday, August 06, 2023

Joseph Hinman's new book - a first look

Readers here and other religious bloggers may be familiar with the work of long-time friend and blog-neighbor Metacrock, aka Joe Hinman. I'd like to spend some time interacting with Joseph Hinman's newest book, God, Science, Ideology: Examining the role of ideology in the religious-scientific dialog. Joe has graciously provided me with a review copy.

There's an issue with doing a mere review of anything written by Joseph Hinman: his main style is dailectic, and it works best in conversation. So I have been enlisting the help of ChatGPT (via to start a discussion about the book, with the bot taking Hinman's point-of-view as known in the book.

Bot: Welcome to this informative PDF file about the relationship between science and religion! In this file [chapter 1], we explore the idea that science and religion are often seen as opponents, but is this really the case? We examine the arguments of Colin Blakemore and Richard Dawkins, and question whether any success for science must automatically mean defeat for religion.

Example questions:
  1. What is Colin Blakemore's view on the relationship between science and religion?
  2. How does Richard Dawkins believe Darwin's theory of evolution impacted religion?
  3. Is it possible for science and religion to coexist peacefully, or will they always be in conflict?

As the discussion continues, I will include these suggested questions and some additional ones of my own.

WF: What is Colin Blakemore's view on the relationship between science and religion?

Bot (for Hinman's POV): Colin Blakemore sees science and religion as opponents in a chess match. He believes that advances in science are automatically viewed by his camp as a detraction from religion, and that the discoveries of Watson and Crick were a defeat for religion. Blakemore wants to see religion as some primitive thing that science is beating.
WF: Please provide some brief background on Colin Blakemore using any available resource.
Bot (for Hinman's POV): Colin Blakemore is a British neurobiologist who was born on June 9, 1944. He is known for his research on vision and the development of the brain, and has published numerous scientific papers and books on these topics. Blakemore has also been involved in public debates on science and society, and has written articles and given talks on topics such as the relationship between science and religion, the ethics of animal experimentation, and the role of science in education. He has held various academic positions throughout his career, including Professor of Physiology at the University of Cambridge and Director of the Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Oxford. Blakemore has received many awards and honors for his contributions to science, including a knighthood in 2014 for services to scientific research, policy, and outreach.
WF: Leading up to Blakemore's knighthood, what are Blakemore's key policy recommendations?
Bot (for Hinman's POV):  I'm sorry, but the PDF file does not provide information on Colin Blakemore's key policy recommendations leading up to his knighthood. The file mainly focuses on the relationship between science and religion, and Blakemore's views on this topic.

WF: How does Richard Dawkins believe Darwin's theory of evolution impacted religion?

Bot (for Hinman's POV): Richard Dawkins believes that Darwin's theory of evolution was a vital move in the chess game between science and religion, and that it removed the main argument for God's existence. Dawkins sees nothing beyond the material universe, and therefore, if science gets the material realm, then it has everything . He makes an "in your face" attack upon all religion, revealing an ideological sense of "all or nothing."
WF: Is it possible for science and religion to coexist peacefully, or will they always be in conflict?
Bot (for Hinman's POV): According to the PDF file, there are different views on whether science and religion can coexist peacefully or not. Colin Blakemore sees religion and science as opponents in a chess match, and believes that any success for science is an automatic defeat for religion. On the other hand, Richard Harries, former Bishop of Oxford, claims that religion has a territory that science can never invade, a totally safe sanctuary for Christian field mice, and that religion is the only approach to questions that start "why" . Stephen Jay Gould, a paleontologist and evolutionary biologist, also believed that science and religion could coexist peacefully, as long as they were kept in separate domains. Therefore, the answer to this question depends on one's perspective and beliefs.
WF: The question whether they can coexist peacefully does not yet address the question of whether people -- and culture at large -- accept the use of one tool to suppress the other. Does the current pdf address the involvement of people and policies in the question of a peaceful coexistence?
Bot (for Hinman's POV):  The PDF file does not directly address the involvement of people and policies in the question of a peaceful coexistence between science and religion. However, it does mention that Christian leaders, even the Catholic church, have reluctantly accommodated the discoveries of scientists, with the odd burning at the stake and excommunication along the way. This suggests that there have been conflicts between science and religion in the past, and that some religious institutions have been resistant to scientific discoveries. The file also mentions that some philosophers and physicists are becoming more attuned to tolerating diverse opinion, which could suggest a move towards peaceful coexistence. However, the file does not provide a comprehensive analysis of the role of people and policies in this issue.
WF: Are there more specific examples of tolerating diverse opinion?
Bot (for Hinman's POV):  The PDF file does not provide more specific examples of tolerating diverse opinion between philosophers and physicists. It only mentions that at meetings where the two groups come together, they strike the author as quite compatible, and that the philosophers in attendance tend to have training in physics, and the physicists are eager to learn, even if they can’t tell their Hegel from their Heidegger.
WF: Some parts of the pdf seem to discuss a conflict between science and religion; others seem to discuss a conflict between science and philosophy. Does the author explain his views on the relation between religion and philosophy?
Bot (for Hinman's POV):  The author of the PDF file does not provide a clear explanation of their views on the relation between religion and philosophy. The file discusses conflicts between science and religion, as well as conflicts between science and philosophy, but it does not explicitly state the author's position on the relation between religion and philosophy. However, the file does mention Stephen Jay Gould's concept of "Non-Overlapping Magisteria" (NOMA), which proposes that science and religion are about different aspects of reality and do not overlap. This concept suggests that religion and science can coexist peacefully, but it does not address the relationship between religion and philosophy.

Hinman's new book tackles a key issue for Christians in our day: stepping clear of the ideological traps that seek to frame faith in God as anti-scientific. Hinman's background in philosophy -- and in decades of discussions with new atheists -- should lead to more interesting conversation. 

To be continued

Sunday, July 30, 2023

Job's Hymn to Wisdom

The book of Job is often read as theodicy: Why does God let bad things happen to good people? I have once seen it viewed as a treatment of different views of fate, predestination, and freedom as voiced by the different "friends" of Job. 

I found to my surprise tonight that the Book of Job has one of the more developed hymns to wisdom in the Bible, and would like to relate it here: 

But where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding? 
Man knows not its price; neither is it found in the land of the living. 
The depth says, It is not in me: and the sea says, It is not with me. 
It cannot be gotten for gold, neither shall silver be weighed for its price. 
It cannot be valued with the gold of Ophir, with the precious onyx, or the sapphire. 
The gold and the crystal cannot equal it: and there is no exchanging it for jewels of fine gold. 
Not to mention coral, or pearls: for the price of wisdom is above rubies. 
The topaz of Ethiopia shall not equal it, neither shall it be valued with pure gold. 
From where, then, does wisdom come? And where is the place of understanding? 
It is hid from the eyes of all living, and kept close from the fowls of the air. 
Destruction and death say, We have heard the fame thereof with our ears. 
God understands the way of it, and he knows the place of it. 
For he looks to the ends of the earth, and sees under the whole heaven; 
To make the weight for the winds; and he weighs the waters by measure. 
When he made a decree for the rain, and a way for the lightning of the thunder: 
Then did he see it, and declare it; he prepared it, yes, and searched it out. 
And unto man he said, 
Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding. 
(Job 28:12-28)

And so I begin to see why Job is counted among the "wisdom" books. It's easy for us to complicate wisdom, and in doing that we can lose sight of wisdom. Is it really more complicated than loving God, and leaving behind evil? 

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Top Bible verses on desiring holiness

  1. Each (seraph/angel) cried to the other and said, "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory." (Isaiah 6:3)
  2. Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. (Psalm 19:14)
  3. Faith, hope, and love remain: the greatest of these is love. (I Corinthians 13:13)
  4. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. (Psalm 51:10)
  5. The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him: The spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord. (Isaiah 11:2)
  6. To him who overcomes ... I will give a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which none knows except the one who receives it. (Revelation 2:17)
  7. He showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. (Revelation 22:1)
  8. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (Matthew 5:8)

If anyone has favorites that I haven't thought of, I'd be glad to hear them. 

Sunday, July 16, 2023

The Cheater's Prayer

Recently I came across something posted by a mocker commenting on Christian athletes praying before a game. He found it hilarious: Don't they know the other side is praying, too? He worked on the assumption that the only subject of a prayer before a game would be victory. He assumed that people who pray are the simplest of simpletons: don't they know that the other team is praying too? He thought he -- clever as he was -- had spotted something that those silly religious people had never considered. Had such an obvious thing never crossed their minds? 

In my experience among Christians, there are certain kinds of prayers that are considered unworthy prayers. There are prayers that are never offered, ones that are presumed to be offensive to God. Examples would be athletes praying to do better in a competition than would be merited by their performance, students praying to do better on a test than would be merited by their preparation, and other things that are in a sense the desire to cheat. At times like that, the prayer itself is generally left un-prayed in the belief that it would be an affront to God's holiness even to ask such a thing. The prayer is left unspoken not on the grounds that a competitor might ask the same thing, but on the grounds that it is unspiritual and unworthy. 

There is an etiquette to prayer not to use prayer in a cheap or self-serving way. Someone might well pray before a test: for calm and focus, for a clear mind. It's the difference between approaching a teacher before the test looking for the answer sheet (cheating), or approaching a teacher before a test looking for the time  and place of that review session (seeking better mastery of the course materials). So one way to recognize a cheater's prayer: Is it looking to gain success without earning it? 

I looked up a sample prayer before a competition, and the first sample I found was this: "Lord, let all glory today be yours and yours alone and let me score, win, lose, etc., in humility and giving all praise to you." That is another way to recognize a cheater's prayer: Is it looking to avoid loss or seek glory for the person praying, or for God? 

Sunday, July 09, 2023

Full closets and empty lives

This weekend I have been reading some of C.S. Lewis' essays, and am considering thoughts on worship as praise. This quote picks up where Lewis considers whether there is such a thing as an object -- whether in art or nature -- that deserves appreciation, or where appreciation is simply the sane and healthy response: 
[A]dmiration is the correct, adequate or appropriate response to it; that, if paid, admiration will not be "thrown away," and that if we do not admire we shall be stupid, insensible, and great losers; we shall have missed something.
Lewis then approaches his point about admiring and praising God: 
He is that Object to admire which (or if you like to appreciate which) is simply to be awake, to have entered the real world; not to appreciate which is to have lost the greatest experience, and in the end to have lost all.
Our age can feel both too much (materially) and too little (spiritually) at the same time. When we do not recognize or celebrate God, we have missed something. When our culture does not recognize or celebrate God, it withers or (at times) turns to self-consuming madness. The lack of glory and honor given to God results in a spiritual desert -- few things flourish, and the environment is hostile to spiritual life. 

On this day may I set aside the parts of life that hide the emptiness, and turn to the One who can fill it. 

Sunday, July 02, 2023

The 5 Stages of Grief - With a view from Christian understanding

The "stages of grief" are a popular framework for thinking about a loss -- and yet their originator Elizabeth Kubler Ross has mentioned parts of her findings are misapplied, where the "stages" do not necessarily occur in a simple straightforward timeline. Some of the "stages" are emotions that may come and go a number of times. Then pop culture includes comedies where these stages of grief are the fodder for jokes, where any part of the journey before acceptance is portrayed as silly (or unhealthy) instead of human. The early stages of grief are uncomfortable -- not just for the griever but for those around, and there are times when bystanders may want to rush someone to acceptance not to relieve the pain of the griever but to deflect the discomfort of being around those who mourn. I'm hoping here for a Christian-informed look at the stages of grief. 

"Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn." (Romans 12:15)

What would be a compassionate view of incomplete grief? Here is a look at the conventional "5 stages" with a side of understanding: 

  1. Shock / Denial: This early stage of grief seems to be the basic reaction, "I need a moment. This is overwhelming. I won't be able to wrap my mind around it all at once." 
  2. Anger: Here the griever is taking stock of unfairness, disappointment, or frustrated plans. Some types of loss hit us in a way that we want to fight, and we feel anger. 
  3. Bargaining: "There has to be a way to ..." Bargaining is ultimately about recognizing what we want, pursuing it as far as possible, identifying what is possible and what is not. In grief, it's meeting the situation with honesty and gentleness -- and with advocacy for those who are hurting. 
  4. Sadness: Recognizing the loss or pain, accepting the validity of sadness, meeting it with compassion. 
  5. Acceptance: Premature claims of acceptance can be an attempt to shortcut around the pain. Accepting a loss is on the other side of feeling the loss. 

Acceptance may be the end of the road -- and as such, it's not possible to start there. On the way to acceptance, being understood is a solid support. 

Sunday, June 25, 2023

The character of God

So much depends on the character of God. It's not just an academic matter for the theologians. Our view of God affects everything we do, every thought we have about the world around us. So what is God like? 

Some theologians start with philosophy: unmoved mover, omnipotent and omniscient, that kind of thing. 

The Bible does not start with philosophy. If we start with the covenant at Sinai we see God as slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, faithful to his people; worship of him builds a well-ordered society with love of neighbor, justice, annual renewed cycles of penitence and celebration, and a source of blessing. If we look at the Solomon's Temple, we see God as making his home among us his people, with a sanctuary of holiness and beauty where the people gather. If we look at Jesus, we see possibly more than we can understand about God's love for the world, and how dearly he values mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation. If we look at the fruit of the Spirit, if we consider the Spirit of God as by essence sharing the nature of God, then we see God as the source of love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness and more. 

Our present age is often a parched desert when it comes to things of God. And so the character of God, the love of God, is at the core of the good news. 

Sunday, June 18, 2023

The kingdom of heaven: as it was in the beginning, is now, and shall be forever

In the regular lectionary, today's Scripture reading focuses on the kingdom of heaven:

As you go, proclaim the good news, 'The kingdom of heaven has come near.' Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. (Matthew 10:7-8)

The kingdom of heaven is under God's rule: he sends his workers to heal and restore. In the kingdom of heaven God works to roll back the legacy of sickness, death, and decay, to clean out any hidden source of willful evil. The kingdom of heaven is a place of health, natural beauty, and holiness -- and healing for all of us, touched by this fallen world. 

The kingdom of heaven sets things back to how they were in the beginning, when God made all things good. (Genesis 1:31).

In general, I see it as good judgment that some Christian theologians do not base any systematic theology directly on the Book of Revelation. The symbolic imagery is notoriously hard to interpret, and its inclusion in the Bible was seriously contested back in the day when the earlier church was considering which books to include. That said, the Book of Revelation does have some passages which reflect on other Scriptures in interesting ways. The Book of Revelation takes up the image of the kingdom of God, with the Lord on his throne:

And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful. (Revelation 21:5). 

Just previously it had proclaimed the natural effects of this kingdom of God: 

And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. (Revelation 21:4)

And so Scripture ends as it begins: with God's kingship as the source of life, and God's kingdom as a place of blessing.

On this day may I willingly take up the work of the kingdom of heaven.

Monday, June 12, 2023

Death and Taxes -- and Grace, and Justice

Short post today -- last week my mother passed away, somewhat unexpectedly unless you count her age that makes it not completely unexpected. I have since then, going through her mail, learned that the saying is very true: the other inevitable thing in life is taxes. 

Grace and justice are at the front of my mind. She has estranged relatives that she feared would crash her memorial and say unpleasant things about her. (Because that's basically what they did when my brother died, with comments aimed at her.) How much does a "good news only" memorial constitute grace for the deceased, and how much is it a gag order? Life is complicated. 

I'm not offering up insight or clarity today, just possibly a moment's understanding for anyone who has ever walked a mile in those shoes!

Sunday, June 04, 2023

Out of town this weekend, no post this weekend

Best wishes to all for a blessed week, & hope to see you next time. 

Sunday, May 28, 2023

Bots and their training materials: How a Christian can gain from them

In this brief series we have seen so many things that the current generation of chatbots cannot do well, or cannot do at all.* For my purposes, their main strength has been their ability to call on a vast array of background information. Sometimes the reference materials embedded in the bot can lead to an interesting conversation, for example this part of a conversation about Paul's letter to the Ephesians: 

Me: In this text, please summarize how Paul describes the character of God. Please use only information available in this pdf.

Bot: Based on the information available in this PDF, Paul describes the character of God as a loving and gracious Father who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in Christ. He emphasizes that God's grace is freely given to us through faith in Christ Jesus, and that it is not something that we can earn or deserve. Additionally, Paul describes God as a wise and powerful creator who has a plan for all things and has made known to us the mystery of his will through Christ. Overall, Paul's description of God emphasizes his love, grace, wisdom, and power.

I was reassured by the bot's ability to identify and discuss God's love and grace. I was intrigued that "wise" and "wisdom" were among its key points about God's character, so I followed up:

Me: When Paul discusses God's wisdom, does he associate it with any other attributes on particular?

Bot: Yes, Paul associates God's wisdom with his eternal purpose and his grace. In Ephesians 3:10-11, Paul writes that God's wisdom is made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places through the church, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. This suggests that God's wisdom is closely tied to his plan for salvation through Christ. Additionally, in Ephesians 1:7-8, Paul writes that God's grace is lavished upon us with all wisdom and understanding. This suggests that God's wisdom is also closely tied to his graciousness towards us as believers. Overall, Paul sees God's wisdom as an integral part of his plan for salvation and his graciousness towards us as believers.

The bot may not have an inspiring thought of its own, but St Paul does -- and the resulting conversation is edifying. Sure, I expect that the bot is summarizing its training materials -- that somewhere out there is a published Bible study behind its response, one that isn't receiving proper citation. That said: That Bible study is not on my own shelves either, and the conversation was worth having. There is potential to train a bot with Bible commentaries. Not only could a bot help with references and background information, but it could also bypass the standard internet search that can be effectively limited to the few most poplar sites or skewed by commercial considerations among other things. 

But for those capabilities, we'll need to wait for at least the next generation of chatbots.  

* Some of the things lacking in a conversation with a bot are so obvious that they can escape mention, even while being worthy of notice: A Bible discussion with a bot does not involve any fellowship, and so has less potential in many ways. It does not build a friendship, it does not grow the body of Christ, it does not foster family ties among the children of God, and it is not an opportunity to engage agape-style love. Though the same can be said of many modern pass-times.