Monday, August 14, 2017

Stuff I Should Write and then Delete

(I wrote this last week as a sort of spiritual cousin to another thought I once had. So it is not directly about events over the week-end, but it certainly relates. And, I do realize that if I am right about what I am saying here, people are not going to understand what this is trying to say. Bring on the misguided accusations?!?)

I like to tell myself that there was a time in America, before all this tribalism, when reason and truth—often biblical truth—were the standard for public discourse. You used to be able to call out those on your own “side” of an issue. You could question, debate, and disagree without being accused of abandoning a position. In fact, positions worth taking held up to such analysis, and if they didn’t, they were exposed and corrected.

Today, conservatism is becoming unrecognizable. A hallmark of conservative thinking used to be character, integrity. You could not claim to hold certain values dear while flaunting those same ideals in action. That sort of intellectual inconsistency was not tolerated. Whereas the substance of a person used to be of paramount importance, today tribal buzz words are all that matter. And, if you question a public figure for not being consistent, or even qualifying to represent a position, you are seen as attacking the tribe. You are accused of abandoning the very ideals that you are trying to defend. Not because such an argument makes sense; but because you have broken the rules of tribalism. Don’t think, just follow!

An extreme example of this was seen on Independence Day this year. When a news organization posted the Declaration of Independence online following an annual tradition of theirs, many “conservatives” took offense that their values were being attacked. The Declaration of Independence was being accused of being anti-American!

The saddest part of all this is that it is impacting the church. Biblical Christianity is being laid aside in favor of a dogma that holds group-think most dear. To quote one of my favorite thinkers:

“This…is a belief: a firm, even prosaic belief that our nation (or tribe), in sober fact, has long been and still is markedly superior to all others. I once ventured to say to an old clergyman who was voicing this sort of patriotism, ‘But, sir, aren’t we told that every nation thinks its own men the bravest and its own women the fairest in the world?’ He replied with total gravity—he could not have been graver if he had been saying the creed at the altar—‘Yes, but in England it’s true.’ To be sure, this conviction had not made my friend (God rest his soul) a villain; only an extremely lovable ass. It can, however, produce asses that kick and bite. On the lunatic fringe, it may shade off into that popular racialism which Christianity and science equally forbid.”

When we no longer hold to the demanding, must-be-wrestled-with, ethics of the Kingdom that ask us to sacrifice our own comfort and safety for God’s ideals and commands, we are no longer following biblical Christianity. We are following instead just another tribal religion that holds our comforts and needs as gods that supersede the gods of other tribes. What we see today is an embrace of a pragmatic, self-serving, dogma that often goes against the example of Christ; an embrace of antichrist.

And do not be fooled. The antichrist zeitgeist never starts out with mustache-twirling evil. It does good. It serves creature-comforts. It works. It makes people feel safe. In fact, as long as you embrace it and never speak out against it, it won’t hurt you. Holding fast to the commands and ideals of Christ, on the other hand, does hurt. It is not easy. It involves sacrifice and placing others first. The zeitgeist hates those who follow Christ. Because our role is to question the powers that be, not to kowtow to them for favor.

The Bible warns that most will not resist. Most will be taken in, even, if possible, the elect.

Friday, August 11, 2017

"The Edge of Seventeen" (2016)

Every once in a while, I write about films on this blog that I tag with the label “Not a Recommendation.” That warning is issued because, while a lot of stories contain elements of truth and are worth talking about to better engage the culture, they are not all the sorts of stories that everyone should go out and consume. People need to make their own judgement call when it comes to violent and sexual content. “The Edge of Seventeen” is a perfect example of just such a movie. Along with some good insight, it has teenage characters engaging in a lot of sexual talk (and some sexual activity) and generally talking like potty-mouthed Hollywood versions of teens.

Hailee Steinfeld plays Nadine, a high school outsider. Her one best friend and fellow misfit starts dating Nadine’s older brother, who is a part of the popular crowd. Nadine takes offense at that and isolates herself further. To make matters worse, even though a nice boy is taking interest in her, Nadine only has eyes for a bad boy who doesn’t know she exists. Over the course of the movie, Nadine makes terrible choice followed by terrible choice. She can’t get out of her own way.

Her relationship with her mother is a major source of conflict. The viewer sees right away that they are too much alike. They both struggle to deal with difficulty in life. Her mom’s advice, that is almost good, is to realize that everyone on the world is as miserable as they are… just better at hiding it.

Nadine’s biggest problem is that she thinks the whole world revolves around her. When things don’t go her way, she sees it not simply as a case of life being unfair, but rather as a personal attack. God is out to get her. That is the biggest missing piece in this story. As soon as Nadine manages to gain empathy for others and see that the world doesn’t revolve around her, she will be much better off. But what she could really use is a voice in her life that shows her a sense of purpose, a picture of God that would care about her. The one voice of reason in her life, a teacher played wonderfully by Woody Harrelson, does not provide that.

If teens could see this movie for what it is, it might help them to get out of their own head and grow up a bit faster. Unfortunately, the edgy content makes it one that, at best, I might see with my kids once they are adults as a “that’s the point I was trying to make back when you were that age!”


Thursday, August 10, 2017

Fascinating, Confounding, Mind-Boggling

My position has changed a lot in the past 200 days. I started out, the day after Trump’s election, with hopeful (albeit skeptical) support. If you root for your homeland, you hope that its leaders do a good job. Even if everything they say and do indicates they are in way over their head.

The current presidency started out less the dry, boring, but competent government you mostly ignore and was more like the reality TV programing that is Trump’s true realm. In that sense, it was almost entertaining to watch, but more as a comedy of schadenfreude, a satire of itself.

But it has become less and less chuckle-inducing.

We had hoped that President Trump would differ from Candidate Trump. Candidate Trump was demonstrably a boisterous, bull-in-the-china-shop, incompetent, inexperienced, racist, misogynist, sexual-predator, thin-skinned, narcissist. Surely such an over-the-top character was just that… an act.

However, as the presidency has lurched and stumbled forward, we have only seen confirmation of the immaturity we saw in the candidate. I used to jokingly compare Trump to a cartoon version of a teen-aged girl. However, one of the more inciteful pieces written on Trump since he has been president was conservative columnist David Brooks’ column in May “When the World is Led by a Child.” He really is like an out of control child. And the scary truth is, we have gone from reality TV programing to an episode of “The Twilight Zone.” Specifically, “It’s a Good Life.”

It is time to break free of the tribalism in America that forces otherwise rational people to support Trump, not because he is right, but rather because he isn’t from the other side of the aisle. Conservative people do not need to join liberal ideologies to oppose Trump. He is a third rail of irrational, unpredictable behavior. He is not seeking America first, but rather Trump alone.

There is room in the opposition for more than one philosophy. Going forward, every faction of American politics should be about minimizing, checking and balancing, the damage that Trump is inflicting.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Revelation Outline

I. Introduction (1:1-8)
II. The Vision of Christ: “the things which you have seen” (1:9-20)
III. Letters to the Churches: “the things which are” (2:1-3:22)
IV. Further Visions: “the things after these things.”
  A. The Seven Seals
    i. The Heavenly Throneroom (4:1-5:14)
    ii. The First Six Seals (6:1-17)
    iii. Interludes:
      The sealing of the 144,000 (7:1-8)
      The multitude of the saved in the Throneroom (7:9-17)
  B. The Seventh Seal: Seven Trumpets
    i. The Seventh Seal (8:1,2)
    ii. The First Six Trumpets (8:3-9:21)
    iii. Interludes:
      The Angel and the Little Scroll (10:1-11)
      The Two Witnesses (11:1-13)
  C. The Seventh Trumpet: Seven Bowls of God’s Wrath
    i. The Seventh Trumpet (11:14-18)
    ii.Interludes: Visions of the Cosmic Conlict
      The Woman and the Dragon (11:19-12:17)
      The Beasts from the Sea and the Land (13:1-18)
      Visions of Salvation and Judgment (14:1-20)
    iii. The Bowls of God’s Wrath (15:1-16:21)
  D. Three Further Visions
    i. The Judgment of Babylon (17:1-19:10)
    ii. The Defeat of God’s Enemies (19:11-21:8)
    iii. The New Jerusalem (21:9-22:9)
V. Epilogue (22:10-21)

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

3 John

In 3 John we see another pervasive problem in the church. Whereas 2 John warned us to reject false teachers, 3 John exhorts us not to isolate ourselves. It is an appropriate companion piece, because that is the most common overcorrection churches fall into in trying avoid false teachers.

There are too many churches that, in an effort to stay true to the way they understand Scripture, won’t associate with other churches. The slightest of doctrinal disagreement has them branding others as heretics and non-believers. For John, there was a core doctrine that mattered. As long as churches embrace the apostolic doctrines on Jesus and the Gospel, they should be seen as partners in God’s mission. Sometimes, though, more than mere doctrinal issues are in play.

John speaks against a bad leader named Diotrephes. He appears to be like so many bad leaders, hungry for power and influence, and he refuses to support outside leaders or any other men who might, unintentionally even, win the admiration of his flock. Just as we individual believers are not meant to live in isolation, but in community with other followers of Christ, so too are local churches not to isolate themselves.

Monday, July 24, 2017

2 John

2 John (as well as 3 John) is fascinating for its setting. It message is largely a very shortened retread of the thoughts of 1 John. But here we have it in a letter addressed to a local body of believers. (1 John was not really a letter, but more of a sermon. Perhaps the sort of sermon John alludes to at the end here.) In this little letter we get an impression of what it must have been like in John’s network of churches centered around the homes where they gathered and lived out their faith.

In addition to the ideas from 1 John (the test of love, avoid worldliness, keep the true faith, etc.) John exhorts the church to reject false teachers. As someone who has experienced this model of church, this is an important warning. I’ve lost count of how many times our small communities of faith have encountered people who claim to be believers but who hold to heretical teaching. Some of it has been downright crazy. And, really, this is a threat to the Church in any model it is practiced.

It would seem unlikely that we would randomly face so much false teaching in a part of the world where 80 percent or more do not even believe in a god. There just aren’t that many people claiming to be Christians. It can’t be coincidence that such people seek us out so often. What Scripture has to say would indicate it is not. So, it is no surprise that churches are warned to avoid them. This is an important warning to heed.

Jesus’ example to us is to live in the world without being a part of the world. We are told to love unbelievers. We are not told to isolate ourselves from unbelievers. They are the object of the mission God has given us. However, we are repeatedly told to avoid those who claim to follow Jesus, but who teach lies about Him. They are enemies of the church.

Friday, July 14, 2017


She shines
But more as a blister
Oozes seduction
That hides open sores
Scratch that itch
Give in and kiss her
Avoid wise instruction
You’ll suppurate more
Down that path
Lie ruin and murder
A black-painted card
Is tacked to her door
So, my sons
Drink your own cistern
Avoid ulceration
And mind your own store

(Poetry Scales 61)   

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Lentil Stew (Genesis 25:19-34)

With the “records of the generations of Isaac” we really get into the story of Jacob. It starts, as is often the case, with his birth. It is a vivid account. A fraternal twin, Jacob comes out second fighting with and grasping at his brother. And he could not be more different than Esau—both in appearance and personality.

For the longest time, I read my own misunderstandings into the story of Jacob and Esau. I would always use the story of the lentil stew to excuse Jacob’s deception. Sure, Jacob lied to his father and stole the blessing that belonged to the first born; but Esau had sold that right to Jacob, right? That misses the point of the story, and is likely an attempt at self-justification. We always look for a way to say that we deserve God’s favor.

The truth is that the picture of Jacob and Esau here is one of two broken, despicable people. Esau does disdain his position in life. He does not value the blessings God has to offer. He throws away that abstract but real value, to satisfy a more tangible, temporally passing, physically fulfilling itch. But Jacob is conniving and double-dealing. He sees his brother in need and takes advantage of the situation. Once again, this is a bowl of beans! That is hardly something worthy of Esau’s birthright.

And, even though the story is recounted here, it is hardly something we should expect Esau to be held to. It does not justify what Jacob does later on. It shows us that both of these brothers are not the sort of people we would chose if we were trying to save the world.

Ultimately, that is the point. We wouldn’t choose one of these guys, but God did. He chose Jacob before the boys were born. Before they could do anything (or fail to do anything) to merit such a choice. God works throughout history with sinful humanity to accomplish His purposes (showing our desperate need for Him) right up to the point where He breaks into creation and saves us Himself.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017


There’s a price
To be paid
For a man
Who is brave
     In the way that he proves his courage
Who finds it honorable
    To defend one’s own honor
Who takes pride
    In what he is
    Like a color or where he lives
And not what he does
    Or does not do.
True nobility,
What is rare and special to find,
Is a man who is humble, capable, and assured

(Poetry Scales 60)  

Monday, July 10, 2017

Final Thoughts (1 John 5:13-21)

Have you ever heard one of those speakers who delivers a super well-thought out talk, who then ends it in a sort of fugue—repeating the themes a few times. Like a song on that doesn’t end, but rather fades out on repeat as was so popular in the eighties?

That feels a bit like what John does here. He has laid out his case and repeated it once to great effect. Then he states the thesis succinctly: you can know that you are on God’s side. Now it feels like he almost rambles the themes out once more. We see the ideas of avoiding sin, obedience, worldliness, and the true faith again.

This is where we get things that are not as spelled out, as if the audience has heard these points from John before, or maybe they were to be explored in another later in a writing or sermon we do not have today. Sins that do or do not lead to death is one obvious example. But we too have seen some of this in John’s other contributions. The idea of effective prayer, for example.

The final sentence seems to come out of nowhere, but it is the overarching story of Scripture. One of the ways we could sum up the story of the Bible in a theme would be as the story against idolatry. And that is something John has been writing about this whole time. We live in a world and among a humanity that has chased after every idea of worship and authority except for the One True God. Walking in the light and becoming His children is all about turning our backs to the idols we have created and back to the One who created us.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Isaac: Part 2 (Genesis 26)

As already mentioned, we don’t truly get Isaac’s story in Genesis. Chapter 25 sees Abraham’s story end, and then we get the structural divider of Ishmael’s line. “Now these are the records…” verse 12. In Verse 19 we start the new major section, “Now these are the records of the generations of Isaac.” But this is Jacob’s story. That said, chapter 26 is devoted to Isaac.

With Isaac we see four interesting story-points.

One, unlike Abraham, God tells Isaac to stay where he is and he will be blessed. God does not work in everyone’s life the same way. If He commands us to do something, we are wrong to think everyone should also be held to that expectation.

Two, like Abraham, Isaac makes the bone-headed decision to claim that his wife is his sister. Fortunately for him, the local ruler realizes the truth before anything bad can happen. Sons frequently fall into the same mistakes and sins of their fathers.

Three, Isaac is a great example of Kingdom diplomacy. Jesus will later tell his disciples to love their enemies. He commanded His followers to not seek justice or fair treatment but rather to trust God to care for them. Isaac is repeatedly run off from his place and the efforts he invests in setting up a home for his vast people and property. God continues to provide.

Four. Later on, God will command His people to cleanse the land of its idolatrous cultures. But here Isaac makes a covenant with Abimelech. God has told him to stay and the right thing to do in normal circumstances is to make peace with others. The conquest of the land later on is the outlier, the special circumstance.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

To the Point (1 John 5:13)

“These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.”

This is why this book exists. John has been writing to give his readers assurance. What he has been describing are the qualities of the people who belong to the Kingdom of God. You can know if you are in or out.

This is the verse (and by extension, the book) that I turn to when I meet people living in fear of God. They tend to be people from church backgrounds like Catholicism or Church of Christ. Those whose faith is built on a legalistic system where people must work to please the Creator.

Because that is exactly what John is addressing. The qualities John lists here are not a list of things that we do in order to earn God’s favor. They are also not even qualities that a believer possesses or perfects in their lifetime. They appear and grow as qualities in the lives of those who trust in Jesus for their security.

Do you see them in your own life? Not in perfection, and certainly not as qualities that you are achieving in any way. But a growing renunciation of sin, obedience towards Christ, rejection of worldliness, grounding in faith, and lead of love, let you know the quality of trust you are exercising.

We are not faithful to Christ to deserve His favor.
Christ favors us and thus deserves our faithfulness.

Monday, June 26, 2017

A Book Find (of Sorts)

It was twenty years ago today that “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” was published for the first time. Six sequels in a series, eight films, a couple charity efforts, and a film spin-off series in the works later, it is an undisputed classic of English literature. That is due to the quality of the writing, but also to the messages, morals, and meaning interwoven into the highly engaging story.

It may seem like a moot point, recommending that people read this book with all the time that has passed and the success that it has had. But, there are surely a lot of people—especially those of a religious persuasion—who have not yet experienced this story of good vs. evil, of love and sacrifice overcoming fear and selfishness. And that is unfortunate, especially considering the Christian influence behind the plot.

Here are some other thoughts on the subject: General, Stone, Chamber, Prisoner, Cup, Order, Prince, Hallows, film 1, +, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7&8, 7, 8Snape, Hermione, Themes, Passivity, Malfoys

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Non Tacet Consentire

This year has been a bad one for my disciplined writing habit. It could simply be a case of burn-out after ten years, but that is not a good excuse. The whole point of maintaining a discipline is to do something despite feelings, despite inspiration.

There is also the fact that I have been incredibly busy with work the past six months. Also, not a good excuse. In the past ten years, I have noticed that the discipline of posting has had the effect of improving my discipline, organization, and productivity in all other areas of life. Now, to be fair, the sort of activity I have dealt with this year is not what comes most easily to me. When dealing with strictly organizational, logistical challenges I use up a lot more energy than when working strategically.

But the most compelling excuse I can think of is the cultural climate. I tend to think about and write about what I see in the culture. Quite often that ends up being about things that are off, or wrong, or need to be changed. Not just in the culture at large, but also within the church culture.

I was once told by wiser, older, missional figure that those who are sent out serve a secondary function to their sending church culture. They look back with a prophetic, convicting gaze. From the outside, they more easily see the inconsistencies, the errors, and the danger zones that those within often overlook. In the proverbial frog-in-the-boiling-water illustration, they are a frog outside the pot shouting out warnings.

However, today’s cultural climate is a dangerous place to be that sort of voice. One likes to think that followers of Jesus are most interested in truth and most aware of their own fallibility. Christianity is all about heeding wisdom and not being the fool who never hears correction. We don’t hold up examples of Christianity where the culture was guarded above all else. Pharisees, inquisitors, and witch-hunters are not who we want to be. But from time to time that is who dominates the church. The voices who value power and influence above integrity and humility. I hope that is not who we are deciding to become.

But it feels enough like it that one hesitates to say anything critical.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Faith-Testimony-Life (John 5:4-12)

Here John arrives (again) at the last of his qualities of the Children of God. Just as those who walk in the light, the children of God keep the faith. They stick to the truth that they received.

And the truth is that it is simple. John has just said that the commands of Christ are not burdensome. The truth of His story isn’t either. Instead of a long list of philosophical ideas and rules of behavior, “the Faith” here is the simple truth the Jesus Christ is the Son of God. The core of orthodox Christianity is the truth that Jesus is the Messiah. He is fully man and fully God. He is the only way to a restored relationship with God.

There is a bit here that is hard for us to fully explain in our context. Whatever John precisely meant with the water and the blood talk was apparently clear enough to his readers that he didn’t feel the need to expand on this shorthand. But what is clear is that the Gospel of John is a testimony about Jesus that serves as prove to his claims. And, if that is not enough, John reminds us that his story is corroborated and affirmed by the Spirit of God Himself in his ministry of inspiration.

So there is a nice flow here as John describes the fidelity to “the faith” of the Children of God. The faith is attested to by the testimony. The Children of God, in staying true to the teaching they have received, share in that testimony. To trust in the witness is to participate in that witness. We carry the testimony in our own stories with the Gospel. And that testimony is what leads us—as well as those who hear and believe—to life.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

"10 Cloverfield Lane" (2016)

The thing about “10 Cloverfield Lane” that makes it noteworthy is the twist. Not because it is unforeseen; and especially not because it is an otherwise unworthy story. On the contrary… you suspect the twist from early on. And, there is a lot more going on here than a twist ending. But, the twist offers us the most thought-provoking aspect of this movie.

So, before you read on, you might need to familiarize yourself with the story.

What is so fascinating about the story of Michelle being [abducted? saved? spared?] by Howard and being held captive or perhaps being allowed to live in his shelter is that it is both/and story. Yes, Howard is some sort of sadistic kidnapper with evil and selfish intentions. But just because he is bad does not make him a liar. He is right about what is happening in the outside world.

It exposes a flaw in our thinking. We assume people are either bad or good. Howard has to be one or the other. If he is saving Michelle from the end of the world, he must be good. On the other hand, if he is abducting her he must be lying about why he is keeping her prisoner. The truth is that life is messier. It is possible for mostly good people to do bad things. We all of us have something broken in our core. And, unfortunately, it is also usually true that bad, even evil people can be right about a lot of things. Evil does not imply a fundamentally wrong worldview. In fact, the truly evil understand reality and chose to proceed down a wrong path.

So, beware oversimplified judgements!

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

What Love Demands (1 John 5:1-3)

John draws his discussion of the test of love to a close, as he so often does, with an “if-then” argument. It is a bit of a complex, four-part description of true faith.

The four qualities that are here inextricably a part of true faith are: right belief, right relationship to God, right relationship to others, and obedience to God’s commands. Here is how it works:

If you believe (i.e. trust in the reality that) Jesus is the Messiah, with all the implications that that implies, then you are a child of God.

Coming at it from another direction, if you love God, then you will also love the children of God.

Proof that you love the children of God is the fact that you obey God’s commands.

And, simply put, loving God is obeying His commands.

So, unlike what the picture above may seem to imply, this is not a case of four qualities that can be variously combined to create ever-better expressions of faith. Instead, they are all there or they are not. If you believe you will be. If you are you will love. If you love you will obey. Instead of seeing the picture as a Venn diagram, think of it as a single circle that has been temporarily stretched in four directions at once to show the qualities. As soon as we let go it will snap back together as a single thing—true faith.

When we claim to be a child of God, the Bible tells us that this will inevitably look like this. We will love God, we will love others the way God loves us, and that love will be expressed in a life lived as God wants us to live it. We can’t have an intellectual faith that does not impact the way we live. When we consider all of the laws and commands of God, they all ask us to be more loving. Jesus told us that the entire Biblical Law was summarized in two ideals: to love God and to love each other.

When we see God’s commands that way, we would have to agree that they are, indeed, not burdensome. They will not always be easy, nor simple or cheap. They are certainly something we must improve and grow in as we walk with God. But if we are truly children of God we have His promise that we will experience that growth.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

"12 Years a Slave" (2013)

I recently attended a church event where “12 Years a Slave” was featured. It was probably the perfect setting for seeing such a film. It is not something you would want to watch for entertainment! And, as might be expected, the theme of the evening was a reflection on the freedom we have in Christ. That is one way of looking at things, but I had a few other thoughts.

The story that this film is based on is almost unimaginable. A free man is kidnapped and forced into slavery for over a decade. While that sort of thing still happens even today in parts of the world, the unimaginably evil aspect of this story is the way that it was tolerated by the people and government of the United States—a self-proclaimed Christian society!

The “freedom in Christ” parallel breaks down a bit because the slavery one is freed from is not the bondage of an innocent man wrongly enslaved. We Christians believe we have been set free from a slavery of our own design and choosing. That said, plenty of “Christians” continue to live in a bondage of sorts even after they have heard the message of the Gospel.

My thoughts coming out of the viewing were indeed of the self-examination variety. However, I think the way to approach the film is to see ourselves in ALL the characters. What of myself do I see in the other slaves? How about in the slave owners? The “compassionate” one, the brutal one, or the detached “fair” one? And, while everyone may want to see themselves in the Brad Pitt character (including Pitt, who as a producer cast himself in the role), even there, there is something to learn. Would we have had the courage to stand up to an unjust system protected by the law of the land? Do we?

If I am honest with myself, I see aspects of myself in all he various—even terrible—characters. And THAT is where I begin to appreciate my freedom in Christ. I was a slave to sin. I was a terrible person on my own without God. That is a slavery I never want to fall into again! Even though I still live in a world where such evil is pervasive and accepted—and still affects me from time to time—I am not bound to it. My future is not doomed to its mastery anymore. I am free to do what is right, and I do not have to rely on my own courage or power to resist it.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Isaac Part 1 (Genesis 24)

The way Genesis is structured you never really get an “Isaac’s Story.” Abraham’s ends and we pick up with Jacob. Isaac is a character in their stories, as son and then father. He is largely a passive character. In all the stories about him—birth, near sacrifice, marriage, well trouble, stolen blessing—things happen to him, and he reacts at most. Unlike his father and his son, he never leaves his home and his name is never changed.

That being the case, Isaac’s story is easily overlooked. The sacrifice is more about Abraham. The blessing is more about Jacob. Even the marriage story is about Rebekah more than it is about Isaac. Some writers try to tie the Isaac and Rebekah story into an allegory about the church as the bride of Christ. However, that is a clear case of reading into the text. The New Testament never extends the allegorical reading of Isaac that far.

So why do we have such an extensive account of the betrothal of Rebekah? I think it is to show us a balancing contrast to the stories where God has his people leave home and culture…

We frequently see God commanding his people—or orchestrating events in his people’s lives—so that they must leave their childhood home and culture. Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses, just to name a few major characters, all go through this. They all encounter God away from the community of their upbringing, even though they all came out of homes that believed in God. Faith is strongest, perhaps, when it is instilled early but tested in isolation—out in the world.

It is a blessing to be raised in a community of faith. It is great starting out life on the right foot, worldview-wise. However, sometimes the way faith develops in such a community is less real and more formalized; less relationship and more religion. It isn’t about knowing God, but more about knowing the tradition and the history of the community. We do not trust and depend on God, but more on our own positions and ideas. We begin to think that we are better than others. This was a problem the people of God dealt with over and over again. It is probably why God wanted Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses to have to go out on their own. John the Baptist, Paul and others go through similar circumstances.

But, even though God refines faith out in the world away from formalized expressions of it, we see here that Abraham wants his son to be bound to a spouse who shares his same belief and worldview. There is value in getting away from a community of faith to firmly establish and grow said faith, but there is also a need to build one’s own family with people who share that faith. That is why Abraham was so intent on getting a daughter-in-law from back home.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

"The Conjuring 2" (2016)

It is appropriate that the sequel to 2013’s popular horror, “The Conjuring” came out in 2016, the year of fake news. Because not only does this film continue to amp-up the horror tactic of claiming to be inspired by a true story, it doubles down on them by having it message be an appeal to blind faith.

Both films claim to be from the case studies of “demonologists” Ed and Lorraine Warren. The Warrens were charlatans preying on the faith of poorly informed Christians in the atmosphere of the seventies and eighties after films like “The Exorcist” both redefined what many Christians thought about demons and created an obsession out of possession. It is appropriate that “The Conjuring 2” centers on the Enfield Poltergeist Story, both because—in actuality—the Warrens were hardly involved in the case, and because it was a scam created by kids who were obsessed with “The Exorcist.”

The film plods along recreating the alleged events of the actual case, and then elaborates and expands on the events with total creative license. As with the first film, this is cleverly done and entertainingly creepy, at least to begin with. Both films run out of steam after the half-way point. However, on a message level, where the actual case was exposed as a fake by news crews and observers, this film postulates that the faking was all an elaborate part of the demonic trick. What was needed to overcome the evil was a blind faith in the story despite all evidence to the contrary.

It is sad to see films like this purport to be faithful depictions of the Christian worldview. On the one hand, it belittles true beliefs and teachings of Scripture. On the other hand, it reinforces a version of Christianity that is more animistic and superstitious paganism than orthodox faith. Sadly, many “Christians” are more the former than the latter.

And, today we live in a world where both Christians and non-believers rely on their opinions (calling them beliefs) than truths. More than any Hollywood version of evil incarnate, this choose-your-own-reality worldview is a threat to life and truth today.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

"Get Out" (2017)

Jordan Peele’s surprising horror film “Get Out” is shaping up to be one of the most talked about, entertaining films of the year. It is a creative, original, thoughtful, horror film. And it happens to touch on issues of race.

And that is part of what makes it so good. It is not, ultimately, a movie about race. It is never preachy. It doesn’t take such a simplistic approach. But it is one of the best studies of continuing racism in the post-Obama world. The whole time one is trying to figure out what is going on, it is evident and uncomfortable the way racism is dominating the undercurrent.

The fact that the reveal is so unexpected (and original and creative) makes everything that much better. That, and it also plays into an idea that I have bought into for some time now—that the best horror is ultimately a Warner Brother’s Looney Tunes premise.

People have been trying to declare America’s race problem “resolved” for decades. When Obama was elected, many thought that that was indeed the sign of the end to our troubles. But all it really seemed to do was awaken and exasperate all of the well-hidden hatred people had been nurturing. It isn’t that racism is worse following the Obama years; it is just more vocal. Films like “Get Out” could be an important part of the national conversation.

As always, this is a horror movie with all of the potentially offensive and disturbing content, so be warned.

Monday, May 29, 2017

What Love Grows (1 John 4:17-21)

The Christian life is all about growing in love. The ability to love comes from God. We are not suddenly perfectly loving when we come to know God through Jesus Christ. We are suddenly capable, but we grow in our capacity. Love is perfected in us as we grow in our relationship with God.

And, the more we love, the greater our confidence in God is. John has written this whole “letter” to assure believers of their relationship with God; of their salvation. We are continually more confident in our salvation—our relationship with God—as our love grows. The better we understand the truth of the Gospel, the more we can be sure that we are in right relationship with our Creator.

A lot of religions and religious people are obsessed with fear. They motivate people to follow their ideas out of a fear of punishment or judgement. However, the Gospel is a demonstration of God’s love. The judgement and punishment is there, on the cross, but it has been dealt with. When we understand the sacrificial love of God for us, we are not motivated out of fear but thankfulness. We do not try to please God and earn His love; we love Him because He has shown us that He already loves us.

Love grows love. Fear grows fear. When we see the things that are produced in our lives we can know what we are rooted in. If we see a judgmental attitude, hatred, or pride, we can be fairly sure that we are rooted in something other than love. If we grow in our love for God and others, we can know that we are abiding in the love of God that we see in the Gospel.

The key is understanding, trusting, and constantly dwelling in the Gospel. In the Gospel we see and come to understand ever better who God is and who we are. It is not merely the basic truth of the Christian life; it is the deepest truth. The path to true Christian maturity lies in deeper understanding of the Gospel story and the love that God wants to perfect in our lives, not in theological minutia and the fringe ideas developed around obscure portions of Scripture.

God’s commands are summed up in love…

Sunday, May 28, 2017

What Love Produces (1 John 4:11-16)

When we realize the truth of God’s love for us there is only one appropriate response: Love. Because the truth of God’s love is that we do not deserve it. We are unlovable. We did nothing to earn God’s love. If we ever think that we are God’s children because of anything inherent in us—if we think we are better in any way from those who do not know God—then we must ask ourselves: Are we really?

The Gospel reminds us that we have been loved in spite of ourselves. Grace is being loved when we should not be loved. So, when we look at the people around us, and we see broken, sinful, rebellious, hurting people, we should see ourselves. And when we know and experience God’s love for us, we should want to show others that same love. It is in our living out God’s love in the world that God can be seen. We are meant to live incarnationally, embodying God’s love for the world in the world.

Knowing God implies knowing love. If we claim that we know God, but do not know God as seen in the Gospel—Jesus Christ crucified in our place—then we do not know the God of the Bible. However, when we come to know and experience Jesus as the Son of God who died for our sins, we cannot remain unchanged. John tells us that when we confess Jesus as the Son of God—experiencing the truth of the Gospel—God abides in us. So, it is not merely that a realization of God’s love induces a reaction, we are empowered by God Himself to love as He loves. We are changed.

Love—that supernatural thing that is beyond human ability—is only possible with God’s help, in the form of His abiding Spirit. Our capacity to love does not save us. Only Jesus by grace through faith saves. However, the love in our lives is an evidence of the changing power of God’s Spirit in our lives as saved people. If your life in Christ is not characterized by love for others, you really need to ask yourself if you really do know—if you have experienced—the life changing truth of the Gospel.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

What Love Is (1 John 4:7-10)

As followers of Jesus, we are commanded repeatedly in the New Testament to love one another. (Just in this passage we get the exhortation multiple times: 4:7,8,11,16,19,21; 5:1.) Unlike becoming a follower—which we are incapable of doing anything to facilitate—being a follower is characterized by what we do. Being a follower of Jesus means that we are loving towards others.

So, what does that look like? How can we know if we are behaving in a way that would characterize us as true children of God? To know that we must first know what love is.

This is actually a huge problem for us. We have so many distinct understandings and ideas of what love is, that we can come up with a lot of different ways to be “Christian.” Some of them have so pervaded our culture that people have decided that we can live with the “benefits” of Christianity without having to believe in God or Jesus at all.

How does the world define love?

Most see it as a feeling. It comes and goes like a mood or a craving. It is hardly the sort of thing upon which to base anything substantial. But it is certainly a positive feeling. These people would argue for a Christianity where people simply remain positive and nice. It is the religion of politeness. This may seem like an other-centered idea of love, but it is really just about self, love as feeling is all about how the world treats me. I feel good when things are good. My goal in life is to be nice because I want the world to be nice. It is the most vacuous understanding of the Golden Rule. This is not the love that the Bible shows us.

Others—and this may be the majority position on the matter—see love as being all about sex. The warm-fuzzy feeling induced by a biological imperative to propagate the species. Or, in today’s culture, we can even drop any thought of reproduction. It is all about brain chemistry and there are any number of things that can trigger our pleasure centers. It is hard to imagine basing any form of Christianity on this base-level understanding of love. Only creepy-cultists and criminal-priests would try to build a theology here.

Higher minded people look to the sacrificial love of a parent or a soldier. And they come closer to the biblical idea of love, but again they fall short. Humanity can fathom sacrificing oneself for a child or a home-land. But this is still tangentially based on a cult of self.

The biblical concept of love is actually foreign to us. All of these other ideas may point in some way towards the concept, but they all fall hopelessly short. John tells us here that God IS love, so to begin with we are dealing with something beyond our created reality. But, God is knowable because He has revealed Himself to His creation. So, love is also something we can know, as we come to know God.

And the best picture of love ever put on display is presented here as the definition: Christ on the cross. God sending His only Son to die for people who had declared Him to be their enemy; people who had rejected and hated Him. The Gospel is our best example of love. It is the love that we aim for in our lives as we interact with other. It is John’s best test for authenticity in the follower of Christ. If we claim to know God, we will know Him as He showed Himself in the Gospel. If we claim to know God we will live our lives as examples of God’s love.

So, Christianity based on the Biblical idea of love is one where people no longer live for themselves. They don’t even live and love their own, the people of their family and community. True followers of Jesus live loving sacrificially towards everyone; even their enemies.

How is that even possible? Keep reading…

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

"Rogue One" (2016)

When I finally get around to making my 2016 list in film, “Rogue One” is pretty much guaranteed a spot on the most disappointing list. When we heard that we were getting more stories in the Star Wars saga, most people likely had a response that was a mixture of excitement and apprehension. Star Wars has given us some of the best and the worst stories in recent decades. The continuation of the main Saga has been acceptable so far. (But I reserve the right to hate it if things go the way they appear to be going.) But this “Star Wars Story” is quite the opposite case. It is a waste of everyone’s time.

First off, it is a story that didn’t need to be told. It was completely contained in the opening scrawl to the first Star Wars. There is no mystery as to what is going to happen. We know the outcome. We know that almost no one of significance from this story will ever be seen again, so we know their outcomes. And, there is no real mystery as to how the story went down.

Therein lies the second, bigger, problem. If there ever were people pondering how the events of the prologue to “A New Hope” occurred, “Rogue One” offers no good answers. All we get here are bad ideas that threaten to ruin the stories we do care about. The most important being: why did this story have to happen in the first place? When the message gets snuck out of the Empire and into the hands of the Rebellion, everyone is surely asking themselves: “Why didn’t the plans get snuck out too?” And, once we see the size of the plans, we find no plausible reason for them not to have been delivered up front.

And, much like the ill-conceived prequels, this movie only serves to further ruin a villain who used to be the epitome of cool-but-creepy. Only here, instead of making Vader a pathetic, whiney, brat, it has him so agile and mobile, we find ourselves wondering how he can become so stiff and slow what amounts to a few minutes later.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Stranger than Fiction

I enjoy conspiracy theories as an entertaining fiction. It is fun to imagine crazy realities, partly because such outlandish ideas are non-threatening in their unlikelihood. (Sort of how monster movies are fun but serial killer movies are too realistic to be simply entertaining.)

The best argument against every major conspiracy theory is their supposed secrecy. If the government had indeed staged the moon landings, for example, evidence would exist. There would be too many people involved for proof to not have been exposed. Instead, most conspiracy theories argue that a lack of proof is their best evidence. That is silly.

Take, for instance, the idea that aliens have visited our planet and that the government knows about it. This (silly but fun) theory tells us that every president, after they are sworn into office, are shown the proof of the alien threat. That theory would have us believe that there is an entire cabal of people who know about this “truth” and yet it has never gotten out.

If you believed that idea up until now, you would have to admit that it is officially hogwash. Trump would have been told about the aliens and it is not in him to keep such a secret to himself. If the aliens have come, the presidents are not hearing about it!

Trump himself has been the subject of a lot of outlandish ideas. He was just running to help Hillary. (That was wrong!) He didn’t really want the job, and was just in it to win and would turn the actual governing over to underlings. (Also, sadly, a thought that ended up not playing out.)

Instead, reality is proving to be stranger than fiction. Every day that goes by we experience a man who, through incompetence, ignorance, or delusional thinking, digs deeper and deeper into crazy scenarios. No self-respecting conspiracy theorist would try to float the things that have actually happened!

Our conspiracy minded friends are likely all a tizzy with ideas of what will come next. If there is a powerful Illuminati behind the scenes controlling everything it won’t allow such incompetence and ignorance to continue. Fortunately, or unfortunately, there isn’t.

If it weren’t so consequential, it would be entertaining. Oh, who are we kidding? It is entertaining! Isn’t that what we want now? This is what you get when a culture decides that reality TV is preferred over intelligent, character-driven, plot-with-a-message stories. Who wants a smart, beneficial-for-the-people, government when you can have a narcissistic, paranoid-delusional, center-of-the-universe, teen-ager running things?

Friday, May 5, 2017

Death (Genesis 23)

To my mind this is a strange inclusion in the text. Why is chapter 23 even recorded?

Well, for one thing we need to give some thought as to why it is not there. Some commenters try to tie this chapter into Paul’s allegory of the Child of the Promise and the Child of Slavery. (I didn’t say they were good commenters.) They say that we see in the death of Sarah, the passing of Israel. You should never allegorize Scripture. Only Scripture can break that rule, and when it does, it does not give us license to expand such allegories.

Instead, we see an important reminder. The Bible is the story of God’s intervention in history to bring about the reconciliation of fallen creation. Genesis shows us the beginnings of this plan. But this is a long game God is playing. When He chooses Abraham to bless all of creation and to be the forefather of the Messiah, He is going to wrap things up in a few years. Death is still an emanant threat. It is still an ever-present enemy and reminder of our rebellion. We continue to struggle against sin and death—and lose—for millennia. Even after Christ is victorious over sin and death, God still plays out His salvation plan. People continue to live and die, but just as we saw an aspect of grace in Genesis 3, we still see creation continue, God giving more time for more people to find their way back to Him.

Also, there is something here about being a sojourner in this fallen world with God. We do not have—or need—a home here in this fallen world. We are just “passing through.” And yet we do come “to rest” in death and await God’s ultimate restoration there.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Ten Years

It is hard to wrap my head around the fact that it was ten years ago yesterday that I started writing here. In that time I have written 2465 posts; probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 750,000 words. What started as a discipline has developed into a habit and, hopefully, a skill. I plan to continue to use this space much as before, but in a less disciplined way. It is time to channel this more and more into other areas as well…

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

A German Guiding Culture?

The big topic of conversation in German politics these days is the subject of “Leitkultur.” That translates roughly as a “guiding culture.” It is a concept that has been around since 2000, but with the current zeitgeist—what with Brexit, Trump, and the rise of nationalism—it is even more important today.

A couple days ago on of the leaders of the dominate political party wrote an opinion piece in a national newspaper outlining a ten-point-plan to protect and foment this guiding culture, not just for immigrants, but also for national children being brought up.

It has garnered a LOT of push-back. The guardians of multi-culturalism are not happy with the idea of pushing the home culture over others. But, it does not mean an extreme nationalism is being suggested.

Germany has a very strong national identity. Even when that national identity includes tolerance and openness towards others, it is still something outsiders identify very clearly. And it is not a bad thing.

Here are the ten points the De Maiziere outlined. Which of these would be a bad thing to make sure inhabitants of Germany are aware of?

1. Openness

(We show our faces, we say our names, we shake hands.)

2. Education

(We teach kids general knowledge things they need to know in life and work, even if they prefer not to learn them.)

3. Performance

(We have a high work ethic and want to accomplish the tasks we are given. When it is time to work, we work.)

4. Tradition

(History—both the good and the bad—inform how we live. The relationship to Israel, for example, following the events of WWII, is one that is special and maintained.)

5. Culture

(Philosophy and the arts are something Germany has contributed to all world culture. Germans should know about those contributions.)

6. Religion

(As the cement, not a wedge. Even in what is today a largely areligious society, it is still built on Christian values.)

7. Civility

(We interact in a civilized manner, following rules and respect. Germany is a consensus driven society. Much more consensus driven than a lot of other countries.)

8. Developed Patriotism

(We love our land without hating other lands. Germany’s history shows that unbridled love for one’s own culture can be a problem. A healthy appreciation for one’s own culture and country is what we aim for.)

9. European

(Germany does not want to stand alone or in isolation. A healthy relationship with one’s neighbors and the world are a much better way to exist. We are stronger and richer together than on our own.)

10. Shared Memories

(The places and experiences shared by the people who live in Germany inform their culture and society. People moving to Germany as well, as children growing up here, need to know about these places and events as well.)

Monday, May 1, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

One of the things that I loved about the first Guardians movie—despite the lighthearted, popcorn way in which it was delivered—was the way it focused on relationships. The Guardians went from a bunch of unlikable loners isolated from the world (galaxy!) to a group of friends who accepted each other’s personality flaws to give each other support. A defacto family.

Vol. 2 carries that atmosphere even further. The plot-line is almost just a hazy background against which the relationships play out. So many relational lines are in focus, you sort of lose track of the fact that there is a story happening. The Guardians continue to battle with each other as they bond and deal with the vulnerability that comes from being close. Former relationships they have had with people who were antagonists in the last film and dealt with. And behind it all, Peter Quill deals with daddy issues.

The film is just as funny as the first, with one liners making up a huge percent of the dialogue. However, there are also deep moments of strong emotion—if you are capable of seeing the humanity in comic book raccoons, trees, and aliens.

The final shot of the film—before the mandatory scenes thrown in and around the credits—is a beautiful moment of bittersweet sadness. Nothing like what one would expect from a tent-pole, summer blockbuster.

The first film was my favorite of 2014, and it will be tough work for any film to topple this as the year’s most enjoyable, repeatable story.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Test the Spirits (1 John 4:1-6)

This is an important passage in my life. It is a reminder that we walk a dangerous path when we try to communicate God’s truth to the world in a way that it can be heard. All the attempts to be cross-cultural, contextual, relevant, or any other trendy way of talking about communication are in danger of becoming “lost in translation.” Ultimately, we bring a message that stands on its own. The Bible message is clear. It says what it says, and attempts to find clever or “new” messages in its pages is a recipe for error. It is clear but understood in faith, so trying to make it “more” understandable carries a risk of dropping the message altogether in favor of something simply more “acceptable.”

That is not to say that we shouldn’t try to find connection points between the conversations going on in culture and the truth of scripture. We have an excellent example of this in Scripture when Paul communicates the Gospel to the Athenians. And, after all, our context in Western Culture is much more Athenian than God-fearing. So, we need to find those connection points to get to the Gospel. Where we tend to lose our way is when we fail to get to the Gospel.

Too often we find the “unknown god” in cultures and then call people to embrace that god. We make it into as close a version of our idea of Jesus as we can and call it culturally appropriate. Instead, we need to use the hints of truth in culture as jumping off point to get to the Gospel. After all the Gospel is outside of all cultures. It transforms cultures; it is never transformed by culture.

All of this is, again, a warning against worldliness. Whenever you find that your understanding of the Gospel has become acceptable to your culture, you need to see that as a warning sign. The Gospel at its core is offensive to the world. We do not like to be reminded that we are in rebellion against divine authority; that we are pathetic, helpless, broken people; that God had to allow His Son to die in our place; that we must surrender our will to His.

We communicate with human culture because God loves all people and wants to restore our relationship with Him, but the only means for these relationships to be restored is through an ultimately uncomfortable, harsh, truth that cannot be watered down and still work.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Temples of Love

When do idols become idols? What constitutes idolatry? In the Bible, we see that idolatry is a huge part of humanity’s sin problem. You could even make an argument that it is our only problem, that all sin boils down to idolatry. We also see that Israel thought they were maintaining an appropriate allegiance to God while participating in idolatry. It is as if they considered idolatry as merely a cultural activity apart from their relationship with God. Or, at times, as if it were an appropriate means of worshiping God.

That worries me.

Some of the things we do as believers—even aspects of our worship and expressions of our religious lives—spill over into idolatry. After all, plenty of things done by God’s people to worship Him in the Old Testament were condemned by God as idolatry! The Golden Calf in Exodus was designed to aid people to worship YHWH. The sin of Jeroboam that ultimately led to the downfall of the Northern Kingdom was a means of worshiping YHWH. The high places in Judah were dedicated to worshiping God, not gods. It seems intentions are not all that matter.

That is because, as sinful humanity, our idols live in our hearts.

Most concerning at times in my mind, are all the cultural things we like, love, and do that might be more blatantly idolatry. Is our obsession with pop-cultural stories any different than Greek and Roman religion? Is our fandom of our local sports and other expressions of civic pride any different than regional, tribal, animism? Does our patriotism at times cross the line into emperor worship?

And when you visit world-renowned museums of landmarks and admire the paintings, statues, and architecture… at what point does that become worship?

This preoccupied my thoughts even more last week when we visited Versailles. A monument to opulence, greed, and oppression, I became more obsessed with the people around me than the “finery.” What was going through their minds? What drew them to this place? Were we all drawn to the luxury out of desire or envy? Were we wishing we could live like this, or were we seeing parallels between Louis XIV and Trump, between Marie Antoinette and Ivanka?

Things really came to a head out in the gardens. There was a particular landmark called “The Temple of Love.” It was pavilion in the style of ancient Greek temples, with a decorative statue (idol?) of Cupid placed in the middle. No one thinks for a minute that Marie Antoinette was a religious devotee of Cupid in the literal sense. She had a Catholic Chapel attached to her house, after all. (Which opens a whole other level of idolatry in the name of worshiping God.) But there was no getting away from the fact that this decoration verged on idolatry.

So, my question is, where are the temples in my garden? What are the idols in my heart?

Friday, April 28, 2017

Fine Art?

It is the real impact that school textbooks had on me: the pictures. Or, at least some of the good ones. I remember one of my history books had Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People in it for example. Only it must not have been labelled because I didn’t know that was what it was called. I assumed the woman in it must have been Joan of Arc. It never made sense to me why she had to have her breasts hanging out to head into battle. Now that I know it is Liberty personified I guess it might symbolize a throwing off of constraints, but that really doesn’t make much more sense. From what I’ve come to learn since, fine art seems to demand a lot of toplessness.

Another painting that stuck with me was Vermeer’s The Astronomer. It was inexplicably in one of my early science textbooks. I have no idea why I remembered it or liked it so much. It must speak to the true quality and beauty of the work. In any case, decades later, when I was going to visit the Louvre with my wife, I somehow learned that it was in their collection and made a note to be sure and see it in person.

We made our way to the museum early in the morning to beat the crowds and set about ticking off our list. We knew there was too much to see in a day, and we had plans to get to the Orsay in the afternoon. We saw the Venus de Milo. We gave the obligatory regard to the Mona Lisa. (A painting I have vivid memories of seeing before at the Smithsonian Institute, even though it was apparently never lent to the Smithsonian.) We saw one of the suicide of Cleopatra where, for some reason, the painter had the cobra biting her right on the nipple! (Was that to induce more squirming, or just more breast obsession?) We even came across Liberty Leading the People.

Then we made our way up to the old Dutch masters. We saw Rembrandts and paintings that looked a lot like Rembrandts and then, we found the spot reserved for The Astronomer. It was a blank wall. In its place was a sign, with a 5 cm x 5 cm black-and-white photocopy of the painting telling us that it was on lone to a museum in Chicago! I think that was the moment that would cement my opinion that the Orsay is a better experience.

I got another chance to see this picture that had inspired me so much last week. Nearly ten years after our last visit to the Louvre, we took the kids. And this time we were assured that The Astronomer would be there. They had a whole special exhibit dedicated to Vermeer with paintings of his from all over the world on loan to the Louvre!

We did the general exhibit first, and we took our time even though we were, again, headed to the Orsay later. We walked past every painting. We lingered at some. We didn’t see them all (I didn’t notice Cleopatra) but most. Then we headed to the Vermeers. And that was when we discovered you had to have a reserved time-slot. The next available one would not be until 1:30!

Everyone knew of my quest to see The Astronomer, so we stuck it out. We waited two hours to get our shot. And it was worth it. I don’t know what makes fine art fine. Why do we all decide that a man’s work, unknown outside of his town during his own life, not discovered until a century after his death, is better than most other works of art? Why does a man, sitting in a room, or a woman pouring milk, or a girl standing in a colorful dress, inspire such universal admiration?

Maybe that is the real take-away for me from school and its textbooks, from fine art and its mysteries. Not answers, but the curiosity to inspire questions and quests.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Scary Part of Trust (Genesis 22)

(The Sacrifice of Isaac by Marc Chagall 1966)

The Bible has told us that Abraham trusted God. We have even seen him do things that demonstrate his trust. And we have seen Abraham fail to do what God wants in spite of his trust. So far God has asked some hard things of Abraham, but nothing that we can’t imagine doing even if they are somewhat extreme. He left his family, home, and the whole world he knew. He set out into the unknown with little to know evidence that he would be safe or provided for. He even circumcised himself and his sons.

But now we get to a test of trust that—if we are honest and we don’t hedge the way the story is told—is terrifying.

If we are honest, we cheat this story of all its impact.

When God askes Abraham to kill his son, we soften that command right away. When we tell this story to our children or to new believers, we make sure we let them know that this is just a test. God is not going to make Abraham go through with the sacrifice. We usually even make sure to highlight the fact that God will later condemn other religions specifically because they require child sacrifice.

But Abraham didn’t have the benefit of the full story, nor the extensive revelation that God has since given us about His character or the outcome of this story. Abraham was told to kill his son. Abraham had to trust God without understanding.

And that is what can be so terrifying about trust and faith. We don’t like to talk about it, but God requires from us not understanding, but trust. In fact, a large percentage of Christianity outright changes that fact. We prefer a God that wants us to understand His truth. It is much harder to trust a God that we don’t fully understand. But the problems are (a) we can never hope to understand God or what His plans are completely and (b) He usually wants us to trust Him before He will give us the portions of truth that we can handle.

The good news is that God did not ask Abraham to sacrifice his son first. Abraham was allowed to grow in faith and fall down from time to time before he got to the point where this was the test he was given. And thanks to Abraham, we now know more about God’s character and faithfulness making it easier to trust Him.

But don’t for a minute think that that will make your relationship with God more about understanding than trust; nor that trust will feel any less terrifying or feel in any way completely safe!

Wednesday, April 26, 2017


I got a friend request from myself
or at least he looked like me
but his photos,
his trips,
all he ate and all he did
were who I always wished I could be

Then I noticed
all his friends
were the people I’d known
before I just appeared as though I were he

Now it seems that I am just
a made-up account
replaced by a
version of the meme-
the fetch that the world is meant to see

(Poetry Scales 59)  

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Obedience as God's Children (1 John 3:11-24)

John continues to describe the qualities of the Children of God as he had described walking in the light. The children of God don’t just avoid sin, they obey God’s commands.

When we compare what John is writing here to what has come earlier in this text, this portion sounds not like a call to obedience, but rather like the test of love again. That is due to two things going on here. First, in this second half that I am calling the “God as Father” section, John also talks a lot about love and the fact that God is Love. You could just as easily talk about 1 John being divided into “God is Light” and God is Love” sections. But also, the five qualities that John listed for walking in the light—avoiding sin, obeying commands, not loving worldliness, the test of love, and keeping the faith—become a little muddled in this second half. They are not five individual qualities, but all aspects of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

However, this section comprising the rest of chapter three is all about obedience. The pure “test of love” will come later, but here the commands of Christ are all summed up in the command to love. Just as Jesus summarized all of the Law and Prophets with “Love God and love your neighbor,” here John tells us that obeying the command to love one another covers every single instruction and demand God gives us.

To love is a command that we obey. This is not something the world or even Christians understand today. It is not a feeling, or a platitude. We are even told that we will have to exercise our obedience to love in the face of hatred; hatred from the world and hatred from those who claim to be followers of Jesus. And we do not get to isolate ourselves into a Christian ghetto and love people where we feel at ease and where we receive love in return. We love the way that we saw Jesus love: sacrificially, unselfishly, and whether it is returned or deserved or not.

Once again, this is an obedience and a quality that is beyond our ability. When we love as the children of God, it is with His power and help, not anything of ourselves.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Eye-Opening Culture Shock

The longer someone lives in one culture, the more difficult it is to deal with the move to a new one. But, ironically, sometimes the people who have an even harder time with such “culture shock” are those who have gone through such a change, and adjusted to a second culture.

The long-term culture shock and adjustment involved in making a long-term or permanent change of cultures is one of the most stressful things someone can do. And sometimes going through such a change does not make a person more apt to seek out such changes, but rather makes them even more change-averse. They become even more entrenched in the adjustments they have made. They hold on tightly to the “tried and true” and are even less likely to grow in cultural adjustment beyond the level that gets them by.

The danger for cross-cultural workers is that, once we have managed to adjust our lives into say, the 10% of the culture that we need to function, we can become even more blind to the other 90%.

As someone who grew up overseas and later moved back overseas, I have experienced three major, long-term culture shock events in my life. It never gets any easier. And yet, I find the experience “eye-opening” every time I taste it. As such, my family has sought out little tastes of feeling out of place every chance we get. Our idea of a good vacation is to go somewhere we do not know the language or culture, rent an apartment where the people there live, and try to taste life in that culture. In eleven years in Europe, we have done just that on at least 6 different occasions.

I think every time it gets harder.

One of the most valuable lessons I relearn every time we do it is that we live with blinders on. “Culturally adjusted” living is mostly about staying on track, following the familiar, and not seeing the outliers. Perhaps that is why, over and over again, God asks His people to leave their comfort zones and home cultures, and set out with Him into an unknown. When we get out of our routine, we see people we normally would never notice. We discover opportunities we normally overlook.

The trick is living that way all of the time.

When we go somewhere new, we notice how different the people are. In our “residence” cultures, we think people are familiar, comfortable, or similar to us. We might think that we have adjusted to be more like the culture where we live. Perhaps, though, we have simply found the people most similar to ourselves and become blind to everyone who is not like us.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Keeping Perspective

“It [terror] never stops.”

I suspect that is something that Trump hopes rather than laments. The two groups who benefit from terrorism are terrorists and populists. The one group seeks to obtain and increase their power by inspiring fear; the other seeks to obtain and increase power by fomenting fear. Terrorists hate and target the status quo; populists hate and target the fringe. The responsible reaction to both is to not live in fear and to not buy into the “us against them” mentality.

Last Thursday, Trump was responding to the killing of a police officer in Paris by a man inspired by terrorist ideals. The whole world heard of this killing and buzzed once again with fear and, frankly, excitement. To those of us in Paris that evening, life went on as it had before. Many unaware of what had happened.

Any death is tragic and this mans was not trivial. But it was immediately politicized as well. France was just hours away from national elections, and—ironically—it seemed the goal of ISIS must have been to aid the populist candidate in that election. Today we will see just how much.

As Trump jumped on the news—literally as it was happening before any details had emerged—he lamented how out of hand things were in France. With the new death, 217 people have now died at the hands of terrorist in France in three years. Yet that number of people are killed by guns in the United States every 56 hours. Why was this one death, half-way around the world, more important than the average of 93 people who die every day in the US? Because it serves the narrative Trump is feeding.

The apartment my family stayed in last week in Paris was in the heart of an immigrant area. We were just one block down the street from what looked like refugee housing. It was right where earlier this year, reports of rioting and “no-go zones” were. Those reports were later proven to be more fake news.

On the first evening, my oldest son and I walked through the neighborhood looking for a grocery store. We saw no white people. We heard almost no French. Just a mixture of African languages and Arabic; homeless people and people selling everything from cigarettes to meat cooked on make-shift grills built in shopping carts to electronics. As we walked and talked, he told me that he was feeling a mixture of two emotions: fear, and guilt for feeling fear from people who were just different.

The fact is that crime and violence are probably higher in that neighborhood than in other parts of Paris. And there are very likely people in that area that sympathize with terrorists. But we also lived there several days and never once had a rational reason to fear for our safety. In even the “scariest” parts of Europe, one feels safe.

Here’s hoping the Brexit, populist, craziness doesn’t carry the day in France. Let's stop giving the fear mongers what they want.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Tomorrowland (2015)

Brad Bird’s “Tomorrowland” is not a terrible film. But to hear people talk about it, it was. That is a classic case of expectations being disappointed. People wanted more from the man who brought us “The Iron Giant,” “The Incredibles,” and “Ratatouille.” “Tomorrowland’s” big sin is that it is forgettable.

That is particularly sad because the film had something to say, even if it is a somewhat cliched message. The cliché is something that today’s world needs to remember.

There is a scene early in the film at a school where teacher after teacher spouts doom and gloom. Everything from global warming to imminent nuclear war is addressed. But when a student asks, “OK. What do we do about this?” she is answered with silence. The assumption is that “the end is nigh.” There is nothing to do done other than complain.

Later in the film it is revealed that all of this negativity has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Humanity is indeed going to destroy itself precisely because it thinks it is going to. The simple, but perhaps too needed message, is stop complaining about how bad things are and do your part to make things better. Don’t feed fear, feed hope.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

God is Always Faithful (Genesis 21)

Chapter 21 can feel rather anticlimactic. God made promises to Abraham and here we see those promises fulfilled. We expected it. Especially if we have an understanding of God based on the Bible. God is faithful. But this is a huge moment in Salvation History. This is the first moment of this sort along the way towards Christ, the cross and the Gospel message. God will continue to promise His people things and He will continue to deliver. We have come to expect it because it always happens. We can bank on God’s promises. But, again, this is a first.

Perhaps more interesting here is the fact that God shows Himself to be faithful in ALL His word. Yes, Isaac is the intended fulfillment of God’s plan and covenant, but God will be faithful to Ishmael as well. God cares about all of the individuals in His creation, even the “fringe” characters in life. He is not just the God of the key figures in His plan.

How often has God been faithful to people throughout history, even those who did not play a major part in Salvation History? Ones we will likely never know about? Always. That too we can bank on. God has so much more going on in His plans for creation than we read about in scripture or experience personally. Namely, He is involved in or offers to be involved in every single person’s life. We know too that He won’t force His way on the unwilling, and that He will allow people’s sin to be thoroughly punished. But He is there for all who turn to Him.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Living as God’s Children by Renouncing Sin (1 John 3:4-10)

Again, John is going to give us a list (the same list) of the qualities that the children of God possess. And the first quality on this list (as it was for those who walk in the light) is that they renounce sin.

In the previous list, John presented three false stances regarding sin: 1. Salvation with unchanged lives, 2. Salvation through merited grace, and 3. Denial of guilt. Here John is more direct in his admonition to renounce sin. First, he defines sin. It is lawlessness—generally speaking, not in the sense of obeying certain laws but rather general rebellion against God. Then, he reminds us that Christ came and lived a life without that sin—without rebellion—and died to remove our sin and guilt. Knowing this, how could we continue to practice sin?

Instead, what we practice as children of God is righteousness.

Not that we are perfectly righteous and never struggle with sin ever again. The key ideas to grasp in this passage are what John means when he talks about “practice” and “inability” to sin.

When John talks about children of God not sinning, saying that they “cannot sin,” we would perhaps use the phrase “such things are not done.” In God’s family, sin is not something we do. It is contrary to our values. That does not mean members don’t make mistakes; but we certainly see mistakes as such. We renounce such behaviors and seek to avoid them. And that is where practice comes into play. Children of God practice righteousness. The seek to improve their behavior with God’s help and discipline. What the certainly do not do is practice sin. The goal is to develop righteous habits and to avoid or overcome sinful ones.

Monday, April 3, 2017


In the corner of the parlor
Lives a little blue man
Behind the lamp where no one’s ever went

He collects dust bunnies
And comes out at night
To tickle all us children in our sleep

He used to live in a mine
But moved into our house
As he didn’t like the mine’s Sulphur scent

Technically a goblin who
Would murder and carouse
He’s now just a disturbing, scary, creep

And that is why us children
Aren’t permitted in the parlor
For we’re the sort he most loves to torment

And at night we tuck our covers
In all around us tight
Since he doesn’t make us laugh so much as weep

(Poetry Scales 58

Friday, March 31, 2017


Dum tempus habemus operemur bonum 

Use your hours, don't count them
Have them count, don't dull their passing by
Fill your plans with goodness
Leave each day a better shade of bright
Each month received is costly
Even aus Gnade und Barmherzigkeit 
So, unaware of minutes
Don't watch the clock, get busy lifting life

(Poetry Scales 57)

Tuesday, March 28, 2017


Aligator pear, forgotten in the fridge
Your black and almost rotten flesh
Has nearly gotten squished
Your cold stone heart might have become
A large, thick, shady tree
But since you won't be good for long
I'll make you guacamole

(Poetry Scales 56)

Monday, March 27, 2017

Real Assurance (1 John 3:3)

3:3 And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.

This little phrase in the middle of John’s letter provides an important reminder. The entire text of 1 John is an encouragement, a presentation of the qualities and characteristics of the believer, a series of proofs or affirmations. However, it is not a list of things that one pursues in order to earn salvation. Avoiding sin, obeying Christ, loving one another, disregarding worldliness, and keeping sound doctrine; these are results not causes.

Our salvation rests entirely in God’s hands. Even the faith with which we trust Christ is a gift from Him. On our own we are so prone to waiver. In Scripture we see example after example of men and women who chose to trust God, but then remained steadfast to that choice only by the grace of God. We hope, and we can have hope because God is faithful. And we can hope because He is faithful to uphold our choice to follow Him.

Ultimately, that is the assurance we will have by the end of John’s text. Yes, we can rejoice in the progress we make “walking in light” and showing the character of a child of God, but we can know that God will never drop us once we chose to make Him Lord of our life. We trust Him, not our ability to please Him. And He will make us more and more like Christ.

We are not faithful to God to somehow earn His favor. We are favored by God and thus He has earned our faithfulness.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Star Trek Enterprise (Season 2c)

Season 2b - Season 2d

The frustrating thing about Enterprise continues to be the way it invents new facts that negate older stories that—in timeline—have yet to occur. That, and this show tries too hard to be about something without really having as much to say as the old shows did. It isn’t that the era in which the show aired had less worrisome cultural issues to deal with. They just fail to be as provocative (and at the same time as subtle) as the original.

Episode 39: “Dawn”

Trek has done this story before (TNG season 3 episode 7 “The Enemy” and season 5 episode 2 “Darmok”). It is also a retelling of the movie “Enemy Mine.” I think Darmok is by far the most interesting of all these versions.

Episode 40: “Stigma”

The series makes a very clumsy attempt to comment on homosexuality and the AIDS epidemic using Vulcan mind-melding as a metaphor. This is clumsy because the series makes a mistake it repeatedly falls prey to as a “prequel” series. The implication is that “mind-melding” is a fringe aspect of being Vulkan, unlike the ubiquitous ability it was in earlier (later?) Trek. Added to that, the ability to share thoughts is an inadequate metaphor for homosexuality.

In the end, this episode condemns a society unwilling to help sick people due to a judgmental attitude toward the activity that leads to the sickness. That would seem like a bit of a disconnect, but it is sadly true to life. Helping sick people and trying to reduce risks with lifestyle changes should be two different things. Too many people are willing to dehumanize and condemn from a position of moral superiority.

None of that truth makes the clumsiness of this episode any better.

Episode 41: “Cease Fire”

Enterprise does a good job of telling an action story. That is something where newness with better production values and modern sensibilities in TV storytelling help the show. Captain Archer is being developed as a character on the side of right over and against any loyalties to race or society. That is an admirable quality, but one wonders how much trouble that will win him. As this episode demonstrates, most people sacrifice right and truth in favor of tribe everyday.

Episode 42: “Future Tense”

This is one of those time-travel stories where we are left wondering why it even remained in the timeline. At least they didn’t do the trope where events caused this episode to never happen.

Episode 43: “Canamar”

Basically an “escape the ever more complicated trap” episode. But since this is Trek, they do a fairly good job of hinting that corruption is causing a lot of innocent people to suffer needlessly to increase the benefit of corporate types.

Episode 44: “The Crossing”

A story in the vein of “The Thing” where you can’t trust anyone; and also a sort of the possession narrative. The suspense is somewhat effective, and the hints at a different perspective on the life we live is interesting, but ultimately doesn’t really explore much.

Episode 45: “Judgement”

This is an effective courtroom drama. When presented with a system that has become completely corrupt, Archer again stands up for truth and right. We are surprised (again) to discover completely new facts about the species we have known over the course of centuries of story-lines. It seems Enterprise wants to claim that Klingons were once more like Earth when it came to justice and truth. The corruption of the warmongering government is a new development. Forgetting for a moment the way this runs counter to everything we have seen before, it is a good cautionary tale for us, lest we allow our leaders to deny all the principles and ethics upon which we were founded.
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