Wednesday, February 26, 2014

"Blood is thicker than holy water."

…And relationships are a stronger bond than mortar.

There is a rhythm to life that cycles around the calendar year and that ebbs and flows with the holidays and school breaks. In Europe, at least, that rhythm is palpable in the cities. Life is busy and the city is bustling with the routines until a school break comes along and then the whole city seems to enter a lethargy where nothing is accomplished, appointments can’t be made, and you might as well hit the pause button on all your plans and activities. That is, unless you are a church. In that case you still hold services even though the vast majority of your people will be gone. You will likely even have a guest preacher in the pulpit because the pastor is gone, but still a service must be held.

That is because traditional church IS the service. It is all about programs being planned and conducted around a building. If the service isn’t held, if the people don’t gather in a building, then the church does not exist. If someone wants to check the church out, if someone wants to consider becoming a part of the church, they must see the service. The service is the beginning and the end of what the church is. It is the “outreach,” the member-care, the source of God’s word to His people, the worship, the everything.

In our network of house churches this past Sunday some of the groups simply didn’t meet. There were groups with people out of town for the break. In some cases a family attended one of the other groups for a change, but many simply didn’t hold services.

And it wasn’t a problem.

See, the organic-simple idea of church is not at all dependent on services. The church exists during the week and in the relationships amongst the people. The outreach is accomplished through the normal channels of relationships throughout the city and Monday through Saturday as well as Sunday. People meet to hold each other up during the week. People are consuming God’s Word alone and in groups of 2 or 3. The Worship and teaching that occurs “in service” is the outflow of what has already happened during the week. Rather than a program or a calendar dictating how relationships develop and grow, the relationships dictate the way the calendar unfolds.

The familial aspect of the church should be stronger than a religious rhythm.

(See also here)

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Serpentes (List 1) Life List

In preparation for some more lists of favored animals, I was giving some thought to all the snakes I had seen in the wild in my life. It is my conclusion that snakes, like many things in life, are not often found when searched for. I have only ever seen some 16 snakes in the wild in spite of a great deal of effort to find more…

1. Northern Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon), Colorado

The first snake I ever saw was a brief glimpse of one crossing my path as I made my way to a mountain pond in Colorado. I was probably around eight at the time and my response was to run screaming in the other direction as fast as I could.

2. Likely a juvenile Green Rat Snake (Senticolis triaspis) San Jose, Costa Rica

Living in Costa Rica for a year, my friends and I found and kept a small snake for a few days until a well-intentioned adult informed my parents that it was a Copperhead! We had to let it go, but we all knew it was not poisonous.

3. Long-Tailed Snake (Philodryas chamissonis), IX Region, Chile

Chile is known for having no snakes. That is laughably not true. Even then, those in the know know that there are no poisonous snakes in Chile. That is also, unfortunately, not true. What may lead to some of the confusion is that the poisonous snakes in Chile are not deadly, so some may choose to call them non-poisonous. I saw one snake in my eight years in Chile and it was definitely this species, one of the poisonous ones, in a redder variation.

4. New Mexico Lined Snake (Tropidoclonion lineatum mertensi), Borger, Texas

I tore up my grandparents’ backyard in an effort to find three examples of this species. My grandmother never quite liked her yard after that, not so much for the destruction I caused, but the discovery I made.

5. Western Coachwhip (Masticophis flagellum testaceus), Hutchinson County, Texas

This one doesn’t really count as it was dead on a roadside.

6. Great Plains Rat Snake (Pantherophis emoryi), Canyon, Texas

I caught this one while collecting arachnids for a college course. My wife and I kept is for a couple years as a pet. I found yet another one while hunting rattlesnakes in Nolan County.

7. Flathead Snake (Tantilla gracilis), Medicine Mound, Texas

I found this species while doing a survey of a piece of land acquired by the state of Texas.

8. Eastern Yellow Bellied Racer (Coluber constrictor flaviventris), Medicine Mound, Texas

Found during the same survey.

9. Blotched Water Snake (Nerodia erythrogaster tranvversa), Grapevine, Texas

In Lake Grapevine.

10. Western Diamondback Rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox), Borger and Sweetwater, Texas

This is the more commonly seen rattlesnake in West Texas. Also the only poisonous snake I have ever held.

11. Texas Longnosed Snake (Rhinocheilus lecontei tessellatus), Hutchinson County, Texas

By far the coolest and most unusual snake I have ever encountered. I kept this one as a pet for a couple years as well. It was harder to keep as it was not as tame and only ate lizards.

12. Bull Snake (Pituophis catenifer sayi), Randall County, Texas

I saved a fairly large one on the highway in West Texas.

13. Ground Snake (Sonora semiannulata), Sweetwater, Nolan County, Texas

My son caught this one in our yard.

14. Plains Blind Snake (Leptotyphlops dulcis dulcis), Sweetwater, Nolan County, Texas

I think we actually found this species in our bathroom.

15. Water Snake or Grass Snake (Natrix natrix) Grundlsee, Styria, Austria

I saw this beautiful snake on the shore as we were waiting for a boat tour. I wonder how the Austrians swimming along that shore would have reacted knowing it was there.

16. Aesculapian Snake (Zamenis longissimus) Graz, Styria, Austria

We saw several of these in Graz around our home on the outskirts of town. It is one of the larger snakes in Europe.

Friday, February 21, 2014

"Austenland" (2013)

“Austenland” almost manages to deliver the perfect commentary to its target audience. Almost, but it chickens out in the end.

Jane is a woman held prisoner to her own romantic ideals (read: illusions). She has been obsessed with the world of Jane Austen’s books her whole life. She watches the adaptations and memorizes the texts. She wants more than anything in the world to meet her own Mr. Darcy but her problem is she can’t begin to meet him because she can’t interact with any real men. She is too obsessed with the lie of romantic perfection she finds in fiction.

Then one day, fed up with her reality, she takes the plunge into total fantasy and books a getaway at Austenland. As her week there progresses, she comes to the realization that the fantasy is not quite the dream she had envisioned it being. While it does prove fun interacting with the Austenland version of Mr. Darcy, there IS another man perfectly suited for her at the hotel. Instead of an actor, though, he is a hired hand working behind the scenes at the themed hotel. By the end of the week, she comes to the conclusion that she really does want to find a real relationship and stop living in the unfulfilling and unsustainable romance.

This film is a romantic comedy that sets out to expose the lie of romantic comedies. It holds a mirror up to its audience and exposes the dangers of their escapist fantasies. However, in the final moments it loses its determination and becomes the same sort of implausible lie that all these stories end up being. So, enjoy it for the mindless entertainment it offers, but don’t buy into the standard it is selling.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The 7 Reasons to Teach Your Kid French that Don't Hold Up:

Recently an essay has been circulating making some pretty silly claims that we need to all learn French. It is a response to another essay claiming we need to stop pretending that French is an important international language. Now, I am in favor of learning multiple languages. I think the EU is on the right track trying to get all of its population to speak at least three languages. And French is a good candidate for people to learn, but it is not nearly the most important or useful. Here are the essays arguments in order, along with the reasons they don’t hold up:

1) For English speakers, French is the easiest language to learn.

According to the US Department of State, the category 1 languages (requiring 23-24 weeks to master) are Afrikaans, Catalan, Danish, Dutch, French, Galician, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, and Swedish. Basically all the Germanic and Latin languages except for German itself which is grammatically more complex and requires 30 weeks to learn. This is easy to understand because the English language is descendant of Old German mixed together with French. So a lot of these languages, particularly the Germanic ones, share a lot of similar words with English. And since they are all influenced by Latin they are all relatively similar in structure. However, there is a good reason to argue that, amongst the various Latin languages, French is harder to learn. That is because, unlike Spanish and Italian, French is a highly orthographic complex language. What that means is that the way is sound and the way it reads are very different. Also, it is more complex in its pronunciation and grammar than Spanish or Italian.

So that first point is only true if written: “For English speakers, French is the easiest language to learn AFTER Afrikaans, Dutch, Spanish, Italian and a few others.”

Monday, February 17, 2014

True Faith Found in Weakness (Mark 9:14-29)

“This kind cannot come out by anything but prayer.”

This passage is—as much of Mark’s gospel—all about belief. However, it is most often seen as a text about the mechanics of exorcism: how does one wield power over the spiritual realm? To understand this story that way is to miss the point.

Jesus returns from the mountaintop to find His disciples arguing with some scribes. What was the argument about? They had attempted and failed to cast out a demon. At that point we can imagine that an argument over mechanics and authority broke out; the scribes arguing from a studied and learned position against the disciples’ authority and the disciples arguing from their experience and history with Jesus. The problem is that both sides could talk and argue all they wanted, neither side could accomplish anything.

When Jesus shows up, we meet the father of the possessed. When he clarifies the situation, Jesus is frustrated at the way everyone is still missing the point of His message. They all debate and debate but no one does anything, and in reality—on their own—they can’t. The father asks Jesus if He can help. Jesus answers that anything is possible to those that believe.

Here it is important to stop and consider Jesus’ response. He quotes the man in an ironic way, “If you can?” There is no question of Jesus’ ability. Jesus can. The statement that “anything is possible to him who believes” does not mean that those whose faith is strong enough can accomplish anything they “set their faith to” but rather those who trust Jesus can rest in the knowledge that that trust is not misplaced. Jesus does things for those who turn to and trust in Him.

So, when Jesus does not pray, but then says that such spiritual strongholds are only overcome through prayer, He means we need to rely not on our own power or authority (or even prayers) but rather we need to turn to God for help. The man responds well: “I do believe, help my weakness of belief!”

The scribes and disciples clearly had strong faith as well. The scribes had an iron-clad faith in their learning; the disciples had one in their experience. Both needed a “weaker” faith; one that helplessly turned to Jesus with a cry for help.

Strong faith—sometimes called “blind” faith—is highly valued these days. We find such faith thoughtlessly placed in systems and leaders/teachers who enable people to go through their lives with no thoughts, no doubts, no need to seek God. Instead we need to cultivate the weaker faith, a personal trust. The kind of faith that continually turns to Christ when we encounter situations and questions beyond our abilities. That should be our prayer:

“Help me in my unbelief!”

Friday, February 14, 2014

"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" (2011)

Rise is technically flashy, science fiction-y plausible, and entertainingly constructed with excitement, emotion, and action all coming at exactly the right place. And yet, it lacks something of the weight of the original. Perhaps it is due to the level of CG that makes it just a step above “Bedknobs and Broomsticks.” That being said, those old Ape make-up effects were pretty bad too. But at least they felt like they were actually there.

I think the real problem with all these stories that deal with the origin of things is that they start right out removing all of the mystery and magic. Part of the genius of the original Apes—in addition to all the social commentary—was the fact that we weren’t sure how things had gotten the way they had. Even when they went back and revealed the origins, it was in the context of what had come before. (By the way, this is why I also advocate reading “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” BEFORE “The Magician’s Nephew. If you do it the other way, you are doing it wrong!)

But it is the commentary that gives the Apes movies their reason for being, and this new effort has some good things to say about science, responsibility, limitations, ethics, and treating others—especially those “lower” than us—the right way. I am looking forward to the sequel later this year.

For thoughts on the other Apes films, see here.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Han Solo (Star Wars Character Thoughts)

More Thoughts: Intro, C3PO, R2D2, Qui-Gon, Obi Wan, Anakin, Padme, Han, Chewy, The Emperor, Yoda, Vader, Luke

Han Solo was always everybody’s favorite character back when there were only three films. Actually, he probably still is. He is the character that every boy wanted to be and every girl had a crush on. He is the rogue, the “devil may care,” self-reliant anti-hero. He is the American ideal who is looking out for number one because no one else is going to do it. He has the coolest ship in the galaxy which means he has his independence. He has a best friend who has sworn a life debt to him—which translates into perfect, unquestioning loyalty—and who can’t speak English but understands commands and can fly and repair said ship. So, basically the coolest dog ever.

However, it isn’t all of that cool stuff that makes him the most beloved character. For the answer to his tremendous popularity, we have to look to his unprotected underbelly—his gooey center. Because we really have to admit that Han is a softy in spite of himself. Even though life has taught him to reject all attachments and simply look out for his own interests, he needs a community. Time and time again, Han makes the hard choice to face danger in order to help out his friends. He risks his own well-being, and the freedom he so craves, to protect those close to him. He joins the handful of fighters against a giant station. He heads out into near-certain freezing death to find Luke. He delays escape well beyond what is sensible to ensure that Leia is safe. He volunteers for the suicide mission to the moon of Endor. All because he belongs to a community that is more important than his own individual person.

He may mock the rebellion, and always have a good line about minding his own interests and safety, but Han Solo is a perfect example of actions superseding words. In a world where too many people speak a good game without the fear of ever being tested—or worse, fail those tests when the going gets tough—we need more people whose integrity is evident in their actions and not just a theoretical, party-line position.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

"It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World" (1963)

Perhaps the best example of epic mad-cap, silly, excess, “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World” features just about every comedic celebrity that was working in its day, and strings together one of the longest running time of jokes, slapstick, and inanity in the history of film. And, even though it is really just silly fun, the excess is appropriate because it is also about the excess of the materialism of American culture. The things that these people go through for a share of a few hundred thousand dollars is staggering.

To be fair, the $350,000 these people are losing their minds over is about 2.5 million today. However, as inflation has increased so too has our craziness. I have no doubt this movie would not be made as a silly comedy today. It would likely be dark and involve a willingness to kill from some characters.

There is a scene near the beginning of the film that sticks sorely out in today’s cultural climate that also encapsulates the problem that this film is highlighting. The leadlawman, played by Spencer Tracy, asks his secretary for a cup of coffee. As she gets up to cross the room to the machine the whole room—even the film itself—pauses to ogle her backside. It is played as a joke, but it is one of those “funny ‘cause it’s true” moments for its day. It hasn’t been all that long since men were so blatantly creepy, and if things are better today it is often merely because those creepy sorts of men try to be more subtle in their sexism.

Materialism is just as artificial, just as much a lie of happiness, and just as wrong and damaging. We still laugh at this sort of commentary today—plenty of films have reimagined this concept—but when we really think about it it is a sad state of affairs.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

"The Night Stalker" (1972)

Kolchak was a short-lived yet inspirational TV series about a reporter who investigated strange, unexplainable, often supernatural stories that no one wanted to let him tell. The world, they claimed, just wasn’t ready for the truth. Translation: the truth would hurt the powers that be, and therefore must be repressed.

Before there was a series, there were two TV movies made, “The Night Stalker” in 1972 and “The Night Strangler” in 1973. In the former he investigated a vampire in Las Vegas, while the later dealt with an alchemist strangling women in Seattle. Darren McGavin (the dad in A Christmas Story) plays our reporter with a carefree attitude far too joyous for the stories he sets out to investigate, but that is likely a large reason why the show had the success and influence it did.

That, and the ending of the first movie, which is really a unique moment in vampire fiction, and a bit of genius. Kolchak fights the entire movie to convince the authorities that they are indeed dealing with a monster only to have to save the city himself. The reward for his effort—that he had arranged with the district attorney beforehand—was to be an exclusive on the world shaking story. Instead, he is run out of town on the threat of a murder charge. Even though they saw him kill what was clearly a vampire with their own eyes, the city leaders were prepared to slap him with a murder charge rather than let the news get out and ruin tourism.

It is a down-letting, dark, cynical moment of classic seventies. You don’t really see something like this anymore these days. For all our mistrust of government and cynical attitudes we don’t tell these kinds of stories anymore. We like to have our cake and eat it too; to have evil treacherous authority figures but still have the hero get his due somehow. Somehow, I think the seventies may have been more honest with themselves.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Seeing without Seeing (Mark 9:1-13)

The narrative has now shifted. Jesus has been causing a stir, raising expectations. People have been healed and demons defeated, nature obeys Him and He bends the laws of nature. Everything has led people to think that He is surely the Christ. However, now He is talking about His impending death? Could everyone be wrong? Is He not the liberator everyone expected?

Of course hind sight is twenty-twenty and we know how the story goes. Jesus didn’t just stumble His way to the cross; it was the plan all along. But the disciples probably needed some affirmation at this point. Peter, James, and John are given an incredible insight on the mountain. Imagine seeing Jesus in all His divine glory talking to those heroes of the faith!

Peter and co. don’t get it, though. Peter starts babbling about making tents and, even though they hear the voice of God they seem more confused than ever. They probably don’t make the connection until well after the resurrection. And that is how it is with all of us, isn’t it?

We all want to see great signs from God; a movement, a miracle. And, even though what we encounter is likely never on the scale of the transfiguration, we do witness evidence of God in our lives all the time. The problem is that in seeing we don’t observe nor comprehend.

We don’t have the disciple’s excuse. We live on the other side of history. We need to live with eyes wide open to what God is doing all around us.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Obi Wan (Star Wars Character Thoughts)

More Thoughts: Intro, C3PO, R2D2, Qui-Gon, Obi Wan, Anakin, Padme, Han, Chewy, The Emperor, Yoda, Vader, Luke

Obi Wan is one of just four characters that appear in every one of the six Star Wars films, but he always seems to blend into the background. In the original films he was the archetypal “wise old man” but even there he was supplanted. In the earlier films he was one of the main characters, but seemed almost too normal for the epic events going on around him. And perhaps that is what led him to the wisdom so valuable for the events in the later films.

Obi Wan is not the larger than life character we are used to in these epic stories. When we first meet him he is just the student. But even then he makes a mark in little ways. He perceives danger before Qui-Gon. He also recognizes the danger the Anakin represents. And he manages to defeat the enemy that killed his master; becoming a master himself. When we see him in the next chapter he is a capable Knight, but not infallible. He manages to fulfill the tasks he is assigned with, but sometimes only just and usually with help from others. He is an everyman.

When the betrayal occurs and the Jedi order is wiped out, it falls to Obi Wan to face his friend and student. Once again he proves himself capable in battle, but it is the hardest task he has ever faced and he fails to complete the job himself. From that moment on, Obi Wan dedicates his life to protecting the future and bidding his time. And when the moment comes he is ready. He engages the enemy again and prepares others for the role they must play. Ultimately, he knows that the most heroic thing he has to offer in the fight is not his fighting skill, not is wisdom, but his sacrifice. More on that later.

Obi Wan is an inspiration for more than the “wise old advisor” role he plays to more active characters in the Star Wars myths. He is a reminder that normal people have important roles to play. That history does not depend on super heroic, prophesied personalities to stay on track. The greatest wisdom lies in doing one’s best at doing the right thing in every moment, success or fail.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Lie of Pi

“So which story do you prefer?”
“The one with the tiger. That's the better story.”
“Thank you. And so it goes with God.”

“Life of Pi” is a tough nut for a lot of people. It is a story concerned with spirituality and faith. It has a lot of positive talk about God and religion. It has a little bit of that age-old, out of step with these enlightened times, wise-older-foreign-man wit. And yet, it feels off somehow.

The fact is, Pi is a story about the postmodern approach to spirituality. It presents an appealing buffet of religious choices. The idea that we get to choose things we like and that which makes us feel good and lay aside that which makes us feel guilty.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Qui-Gon Jin (Star Wars Character Thoughts)

More Thoughts: Intro, C3PO, R2D2, Qui-Gon, Obi Wan, Anakin, Padme, Han, Chewy, The Emperor, Yoda, Vader, Luke

Qui-Gon Jin’s approach to life—his teaching and training that he passes on to his disciples—is partially wise at first glance. In the end it is only folly. It is ultimately a “go with your gut” approach. He urges patience, calm, and a trust that everything is going to happen as it should. He encourages his charges to follow their feelings as circumstances present themselves. One will supposedly know the correct response to every occurrence by “feeling” the right way forward. In the course of the first prequel—the only one that Qui-Gon appears in—we see that he carries this life principle so far as to reject the opinion and even the decision of his peers and superiors and all the wise-council in his life.

The reason this seems like wisdom is that wise people seem to proceed through life in just this way. That is merely appearance. The truth is that wisdom of this sort only comes with time because experience, learning, and growth through repeated successes and failures provide one with the capacity to “feel” one’s way forward with a certain degree of success. The wisest of individuals rely on past experience and learning—but even more so on the collective wisdom of those who have lived and learned before, not mere “gut” instinct.

In Qui-Gon’s case, the results of this “wisdom” are evident in the story. He regularly misses warnings of danger, he chooses to take along dependents that end up being a danger to his cause (and an annoyance to the audience that nearly killed the film franchise going forward.) He pretty much single-handedly ensures the fall of the Jedi order and the (temporary) success of the Sith. Ultimately he is killed.

The wisdom and insight of the entire Jedi philosophy are in question. (Just look at the hows and the whys of the fall of the Order in those prequels.) However, Qui-Gon Jin’s approach to life is no wisdom we should seek to emulate. We would do better to look to his apprentice for a more successful strategy of life…

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (Season 6b)

Season 6a  Season 6c

Episode 9: “Statistical Probabilities” 

Now that we know Dr. Bashir is genetically enhanced, we get a story exploring what other such individuals are like. The answer is, “not socially adjusted.” The fun message here is, don’t trust anyone who claims to be able to tell you your future. The statistical probabilities here claim that no one should make any effort at anything, as everything is basically predetermined. Sort of the way “experts” these days are supposed to be able to tell us the future about sporting events, political outcomes, the weather, and anything else about which one can claim expertise.

Episode 10: “The Magnificent Ferengi” 

The obligatory fun, comedic, Ferengi episode this year is a send-up of “The Magnificent Seven.” It is indeed entertaining.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Let's Not Be Mistaken (Mark 8:27-38)

In Caesarea Philippi, Jesus reveals himself to His disciples. They tell Him that His ministry had had such an impact that people had begun to speculate, that Jesus marked the return of Elijah or another one of the prophets. His disciples recognize though that He is the promised—the prophesied one, the Messiah. IN Him, God’s promises and plans will be made full.

However, the disciples are still mistaken. They believed that Jesus was a messiah, just not the Messiah God had promised. They thought He was some messiah of human imagination and Jewish longing. They didn’t see the Lamb of God a sacrifice for mankind, but rather a superhero, a warrior, come to establish and govern a human kingdom. Jesus corrects their misunderstanding by announcing His true purpose and plan: to die for mankind and rise again victorious over sin and death. Peter and the disciples do not understand, protest, and are rebuked.

Jesus goes further to clarify the true nature of discipleship. To follow the Messiah is to truly die to oneself. If we wish to be followers of Jesus, we are to follow Him into His death, His sacrifice. We are no longer delude ourselves into thinking we are our own masters, pursuing the interests the world pushes on us. Instead, we are God’s people following His plans, wishes, and commands.

In this fallen and sinful time, we are now strangers. We no longer value what the world values. We are all about Jesus the Messiah; making Him and His story known. We are different. We no longer truly fit in this time and place, but we can embrace that difference without shame.

Or, at least we should. Some of us are still busy following our own idea of who Jesus is.
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