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Sunday, September 25th, 2016
5:32 pm - Sermon Series: Pulled In Every Direction
Sermon Two: "Church Discipline"

1 Corinthians 5-6

This is the second sermon in my series from Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians, which is my response to all the crazy and depressing stuff I see happening in American society and in The United Methodist Church -- sort of an attempt to go back to the basics and address our current situation by looking at the situation of the Corinthian church in Paul’s day.

The Corinthians were a mixed bag, culturally: Jewish believers rubbed shoulders with Gentile believers, and misunderstandings were rife. Christianity was brand-new, and few people fully understood what it meant to be the Church and to live in Christ. All that was being worked out; meanwhile, normal human sinfulness and quarrelsomeness kept making everything more difficult.

Last week, I spoke of the tendency of the church to split into factions, which Paul addressed in the first quarter of his letter – Chapters 1-4. This week, I want to focus on the nature and need for church discipline, which he addresses in Chapters 5 and 6. Once again, I will forego reading the long passage, and instead dip into it as we go. I invite you to open your Bibles to 1 Corinthians 5, and follow along.

Paul isn’t ready to address the questions the Corinthians have forwarded to him yet. He’s still addressing issues others have brought to him that they would rather not talk about. And Paul bluntly calls to their attention a certain scandalous thing in their midst.
It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father's wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.

For though absent in the body, I am present in spirit, and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing. When you are assembled, and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.
So, a man who is part of the Corinthian church is living with – and I don’t just mean sharing a residence with - his step-mother, his father’s former wife. Note that they can’t marry, because the union was illegal under Roman law; under the Jewish law – which was not abrogated by Christianity, by the way, at least not this part - this was not only illegal, but also considered an abomination.

Nobody in the Corinthian church has done anything about it. Perhaps nobody wants to make waves, or interfere with somebody else’s happiness, or be thought a bigot or something. And there may have been all kinds of mitigating and sympathetic circumstances in this situation: the incest may be technical only, for all I know, but that doesn’t matter to Paul. He orders the man excommunicated until the situation has been rectified.

Now, in doing so, Paul short-circuits what we would think of as due process – a thing he is careful to insist upon on other occasions. In this situation, however, Paul sees that if this is allowed to go on, pretty soon, all kinds of things will be overlooked, even celebrated. So somebody has to draw a line and make it stick, and he flexes his apostolic authority to do just that – a rarity for him, by the way.

From this situation, he goes to talk about another flabbergasting thing the Corinthians are doing: suing each other in court as a means of settling disputes.
When one of you has a grievance against a brother, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints?
And just to make the point clearer, he says,
To have lawsuits at all with one another is defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud, and that even your own brethren.
The Corinthians overlook really important stuff – let it go, lest they make somebody mad – and then they sue each other over merely worldly matters, as if they were a bunch of pagans.

Paul points out that they have been redeemed from their sins – for they were once as bad as anybody else in town, and that in various ways – but they have been forgiven. But the certainty of that forgiveness is not to be used as an excuse to keep doing un-Christian things.
"All things are lawful for me," but not all things are helpful. "All things are lawful for me," but I will not be enslaved by anything. "Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food" - and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for immorality, but fore the Lord, and the Lord for the body.
And while the main thing being talked about here has to do with sexual immorality, Paul is stating a wider principle, that our behavior matters – not just in the sense of keeping score over this sin, or that, but in what we do with our lives.
Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.
Now, at this point, we need to come back to our world and our current situation. The UMC has two problems today that threaten it – one more common among the clergy, and the other more common among the laity. Our Church has never been known for excommunicating people, or for church trials generally, though the procedures for enforcing our rules about behavior exist. On those rare occasions when they are invoked, they are almost always leveled at a clergyperson who has broken one of our bigger taboos; but even then, the whole process of charges and trials and so on is a last resort – nobody really wants to go there. Nevertheless, we sometimes have to – and right now, we are facing a situation in The UMC where certain clergypersons are blatantly disobeying our rules in order to provoke change, and they expect to get away with it.

In response, our bishops are tending to play “nobody here but smoke” and won’t enforce the rules. Which means, ultimately, that the will of General Conference means nothing in the face of a few people who want the rules to be otherwise. And if they are allowed to have their way, then the rules will be as they want them to be, not just for them, but for all of us; hence, the undercurrent of crisis and confrontation you keep hearing about, and the threat of schism.

I personally think we need to crack down, hard, on this kind of thing – not because I’m a vindictive sort, but because I think dithering around does no one any favors. We can talk about what the mutineers think is so important after they have returned to their obedience and the Church has resumed regular order and we have all reaffirmed the need to obey the rules, even when we disagree with them. And I could ramp and snort on this subject for the rest of my time, but important as it is, it’s largely a clergy problem.

The laity have a different problem regarding expectations of behavior – one which John Wesley addressed in the General Rules of our movement. Three things were expected of those who wanted to identify with the Methodist Movement back in Wesley's day. One was to “do no harm” – meaning, to avoid obvious sins and anything that would hurt somebody else. In short, don’t be like the Corinthians.

But the second expectation was to “do good” by all the means at one’s disposal. Not just to avoid immorality or quarreling, but to do helpful things for others, to live a life of charity and volunteering and expressing the love God has graced you with to others who are in need of it. Methodism was to be an active kind of Christianity, not just avoiding sin but devoting yourself to doing good.

And the third expectation was to be “faithful in attendance upon all the ordinances of God” — which meant attending public worship, taking communion as often as possible, fasting, praying, reading the Scriptures, and so on: what we might call the devotional life.

The early Methodists enforced these expectations in an interesting way. They didn’t have a lot of formal procedures. They didn’t spend their energy writing policies or investigating misbehavior. But, you see, the core of Methodist belonging wasn’t the preaching service, it was the class meeting – that weekly gathering in which you met with other, like-minded persons to help each other on to perfection in love.

It was a tremendously important part of being a Methodist. It was where people really experienced the love and belonging and spiritual growth that we all talk about. When the famous frontier explorer Jedediah Smith wrote home to his brother from the Rocky Mountains in the 1820s, he said, "Oh, for a society to bear me up before a throne of grace!" He was longing for the support he had experienced in that little Methodist class meeting.

In Wesley's day, you had to have a ticket to get into the class meeting. Tickets were renewed every quarter. And if the class leader or the society leader or the itinerant preacher saw that you weren’t keeping up with the expectations of the Methodist life, you could have your ticket pulled. Now, that could get ugly in a hurry, if people were of a fault-finding disposition – or if certain, very well-connected people had their tickets pulled, I suppose. But however that might be, no one could hope to contradict Mr. Wesley himself, when he came to town and examined the membership rolls of the societies. Wesley was known to drop a third of the whole membership just because they were no longer actively engaged in trying to live up to the expectations of the Methodist way. That didn’t mean they were bad people, just that they weren’t trying anymore, and John Wesley saw no value in having mere “names on a roll.” Did this mean the movement suffered? No, it flourished! The more Wesley pruned the bushes, the more they bloomed. And there’s a lesson here, for us today.

Making rules and enforcing them may be necessary, but it isn’t what makes people grow in Christ. We don’t want to be a church of rule-mongers, or finger-pointers. But, wouldn't you like to belong to a church where everybody in the church was excited about following Christ, and experiencing the power of the HS in their lives, and engaged in doing things that helped others – and incidentally, made you feel good to participate? Well, here’s the thing: that only happens in churches where people have high expectations for each other, and where people accept high expectations for their own behavior and participation.

It’s like being on an athletic team. Everybody would like to be part of a winning team. It’s a great experience. But if you have a team where some team members are dogging it, where attendance at practice is hit or miss, where nobody spends much time in the weight room, where people fear to confront each other’s laziness because they think they’ll be ostracized, where team members are only interested in their personal stats and awards, and where nobody listens to the coach, that team will not only not win many games, but will form a miserable experience for everybody who has the misfortune to be a part of it.

Such a team will not be turned around by hard-and-fast rules, though the coach may have to crack down some at first. But no, that team will really begin to turn around when the individual team members decide to work harder, to play more unselfishly, and to demand from each other what they are beginning to demand from themselves. A team that plays that way, that trains that way, that has high expectations of themselves, will be a joy to play on – and, coincidentally, will win more games.

Sociologists of religion divide religious denominations into “high-demand churches” and “low-demand churches.” High-demand churches have clear expectations for what their members will do, and they communicate them. Low-demand churches have fewer expectations, and they don’t press them.

The UMC (unlike the Methodism of Wesley’s day) is a rather “low-demand church” – and lots of people like it that way. They don’t want to make a great deal of effort, either morally or relationally. They don’t like being asked to give money. They don’t want to feel self-conscious about their low attendance. They don’t want to feel gauche because their prayer life is non-existent – so don't call on them to pray! They don’t want to be responsible for anything. As for rejecting sin and embracing holiness – well, they don’t want to really be held accountable, even by God, for that. They want their church to be strong, but they don’t want it to ask anything much of them. But then, who will give the effort necessary to make the church strong, if everyone just wants to come along for the ride?

A low-demand church is like a low-demand team. It doesn’t win many games, and it provides a mediocre experience for the team members. It also easily descends into selfishness and blaming each other. The Lord says in the words of the prophet Hosea, “my people perish for lack of knowledge” – meaning, not just "head knowledge," but the wisdom that accompanies experience. You could also translate that, “ my people perish for want of discipline.”

Not for want of rules; rules are not discipline, though an unwillingness to enforce the rules can destroy discipline pretty effectively. No, discipline is about what you demand of yourself – and then what you will let others demand of you – and finally what you will demand from others, so that all of us can reach the peak experience that we’re aiming for. It's not just about personal effort; the genius of early Methodism was that people sought the fullness of Christ together - in a disciplined, methodical way.

So discipline is about glorifying God in our bodies – that is, with our behavior. Not just with our emotions, not just with our minds, not just with our affiliation – but by how we actually live our lives. It’s about living for Jesus, rather than living for ourselves. As Paul says here, “You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body" – with your behavior. And see if that doesn’t change everything – not only for you, but for everybody.

Amen.

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Saturday, September 24th, 2016
8:55 pm - Making progress
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements -- surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning stars sang together,
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
Job 38:4-7

This photo doesn't show the red cord stretched out from batter board to batter board very well, but it's there. This is the first block I've ever laid. It's reasonably straight, and reasonably level, and I'm learning more and more as I go along. Three more sides to do. After that, I expect the additional courses will go much faster.

Anyway, I'm shouting for joy, praising God for progress. Also for beautiful weather: Wilderstead was gorgeous. The stars last night were all bright and distinct. When I called Deanne about 9:00, she asked what I was doing. I said, "I'm watching a centaur shooting at a scorpion." Where? she asked. "In the sky," I said. (Sagittarius and Scorpius were the most prominent constellations of the Zodiac I could see, with Mars and Saturn between them.)

I drove over Friday and waited for the afternoon heat to abate, then laid some block. Got a good night's rest and laid more block this morning. Ran out of cement, went into to town to get some, and finished the run about 4:30 p.m. 24 block = 32 feet.

First course done

First course done
Downhill side

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Tuesday, September 20th, 2016
4:30 pm - Wake up and smell the coffee
Ellettsville has a new coffee shop with baked goods and sandwiches downtown. They roast their own coffee. They also cold-brew some. I got a shot of cold-brewed Ethiopian coffee so intense it tasted like unsweetened chocolate.

So, clergy colleagues, we have a place to schmooze when you are passing through E-ville. C'mon over!

CIMG5930

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10:32 am - In which I explain myself more fully
In last Sunday's sermon, which I posted on this blog, I made the following statement which, I think, raised some eyebrows.
The thing I want you to notice is that the Corinthian church is made up of Jews of various sorts - Antiochene, Alexandrian, and Aramaic – each with a slightly different perspective on the gospel, as well as Gentiles of various sorts - Romans, Greeks, Phrygians, whatnot.
How can I know that, especially about the various sorts of Jews?

As regards the Gentiles, we know there were Romans and Greeks mingling there from history; besides, there are Latin and Greek names recorded among the Corinthian believers in both Acts 18 and 1 & 2 Corinthians. The Phrygians I tossed in as a placeholder (they lived across the Aegean in SE Turkey, just beyond the Ionian Greeks), to stand for all the other Hellenized ethnicities one would have encountered in a mercantile transportation hub like Corinth.

As for the Jews, I wasn't suggesting that the Jews were actually from Antioch or Alexandria, though some might have been. I'm assuming that the Jews of Corinth were typical of the Diaspora. Some might have come from other places, but many probably were native to Achaia; some we know came from Rome when Claudius expelled the Jews from that city (Prisca and Aquila, for instance -- though Aquila was originally from Pontus, on the Black Sea coast of Turkey).

That said, Apollos was popular because of his skill in interpreting the Scriptures according to the typological exegesis one would associate with the Jewish scholars of Alexandria. He was a smooth and powerful talker, and would have seemed extremely sophisticated. Paul was not known for his rhetorical skills or public presentation. And, while he could do what the Alexandrians did -- in spades -- one gets the impression he was more direct, and far more interested in making connections with the Gentile way of thinking. Natural theology was something he probably referred to far more than Apollos did. Paul cut his teeth in Church leadership in Antioch, which was very open to working with the Gentiles, and where the disciples were first called "Christians."

Now, the entire history of theological development in the first five centuries or so of the Church is dominated by the attempt to reconcile the Alexandrian and Antiochene modes of theological expression. Later on, references to the tensions between the Patriarchates of Alexandria and Antioch stand in for the whole range of issues that roiled the early Church. Whatever the individual merits or characteristics of Paul and Apollos, I'm suggesting that you're seeing the germ of that competition here in 1st Century Corinth. Some people liked their theology served up with an Alexandrian sauce, while others found Antiochene flavors more to their taste. And these differing approaches could easily be misunderstood by the other camp, and lead to banners being waved and lines being drawn in the sand -- to the creation of factions, which is what Paul is talking about here.

As for Cephas, this refers to the Apostle Peter back in Jerusalem. Some people in Corinth, faced with those drawing distinctions that were leading to faction, attempted to trump the board by appealing to Peter's apostolic leadership. By using the Aramaic form of his name (petros in Greek and cephas in Aramaic both mean "rock" -- and Cephas is what Jesus undoubtedly actually called him when he gave him the nickname) they are implying that their group is more authentic in its expression than all these slick preachers arguing in Greek.

Of course, Paul mentions that some of the Corinthians were saying, "I belong to Christ," too. Well, whenever this sort of thing gets going, and labels start getting applied to various groups, there's always somebody who tries to condescend to everybody else. You know the sort. They say, "I don't believe in labels, I just belong to Christ," and then they proceed to use "Christ" as a mere label for themselves. If you want a more recent example, look at the Restorationist Movement of the 19th Century.

So, why didn't I say all this? Well, you can't say everything in a sermon. There's not enough time. Back when I was teaching beginning education students how to plan lessons, I would start by asking how long their class periods were. They were surprised at that, but then I said, "the size of your truck determines how many vegetables you can take to market" -- at least, in a single trip. Sermons are the same way. So, for the sake of time, you have to cut things down to fit the time you've allowed yourself.

You also have to cut things down now and then in order to preserve clarity. If you chase too many rabbits, even though you kept to your time, your hearers won't get the main point you're driving at. So you have to sacrifice subsidiary points in order to emphasize the main point. Now, the sermon covered a vast amount of territory -- four whole chapters. I could have preached several sermons from 1 Corinthians 1-4; however, to do so would mean it would be less likely that people would get the idea that throughout those four chapters, Paul is banging on about factions, and that was what I was trying to get at. Plus, I wanted to get this sermon series done before Advent.

The sermonic form is not capable of carrying footnotes, so sometimes things don't get said that you'd have liked to say, but could only allude to in passing. But please note this: I try never to say anything in the heat of the moment that I am not willing to back up in cold prose and to show my sources for. The sermon is, ideally, only the tip of a very large iceberg. It's the part that shows above the surface; down below is an enormous amount of study and reflection and prayer.

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Sunday, September 18th, 2016
3:49 pm - Sermon Series: Pulled In Every Direction
Sermon One, "Factions"

1 Corinthians 1-4

I have been deeply troubled for many months now over situations in American society and in The United Methodist Church – and I haven’t known what to say, how to address them. Our society is being pulled apart from one direction after another, all the time, and we are distracted from real dangers on the horizon.

Never, I do believe, have we ever seen so appalling a set of choices in a presidential election – and while the problems in our society are more than merely which of the two major candidates must inevitably win this fall, yet the race to the bottom we see in this cycle is emblematic, perhaps, of our larger situation. Not to get into politics, but on the merely personal level, I think both major candidates are utterly unfit for the office they seek. Hillary Clinton is probably the most corrupt individual ever to seek the presidency; meanwhile, Donald Trump is as preposterous a potential leader as the Great and Powerful Oz.

And if you thought you could take refuge from the impending awfulness of politics and society and retreat into the safe harbor of the church, well lemme tell ya, The UMC has entered into a vortex which bids fair to tear it apart. We have argued over sexuality for 40 years – that’s the presenting issue – but at the base, sexuality is only a proxy for larger issues of what we believe and where we get it from, and whether any of our leaders can be made accountable, regardless of what rules are written into the Book of Discipline. Right now, we are facing rebellions all over from progressive clergy and others who say they will not obey the Discipline – and our bishops either fear to corral them, or secretly cheer them on.

Now, ordinary church-going folk haven’t really become aware of this yet, I’m guessing, but we clergy, who deal with this professionally all the time, see lifetimes of work imperiled. To put it bluntly, The UMC has a very limited time in which to figure out how to proceed before it either implodes – or explodes.

So, in the realm of Church politics, we are dancing on the rim of a volcano, while in the realm of public politics, the larger society is dancing on the rim of a toilet. What do you say? How do you equip the saints to face the turbulent times we will face in the next few years? That’s the challenge I’ve been wrestling with. I don’t want to get people riled up, particularly if there’s nothing we can do about it – but I don’t want to give people a false sense of security, either, and say, Oh, everything’ll work out – it always does. Because sometimes, it doesn’t.

Finally, I decided that what I would do is to preach my way through Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians this fall. For the Church in Corinth is the textbook case of a church being pulled apart by forces from within and without, having to deal with different people from different cultures, trying to all be Christian together. And in this letter, Paul addresses, head-on, a whole range of powerful issues that we continue to wrestle with. Maybe that will give us some tools with which to face the future.

With that in mind, let me give you just a little background on the church in 1st Century Corinth. Paul arrived there from Athens on one of his missionary journeys, and he stayed for a year and a half. Corinth was in Greece, and everybody spoke Greek, but it was a Roman city, with Romans in charge of administration. There was also a synagogue of Jews there. In fact, situated as it was, on a major trans-shipment point – the Isthmus of Corinth - it was filled with every kind of people in the Roman Empire.

Well, Paul began, as he always did, by going to the local synagogue and preaching Jesus and the Resurrection to his fellow Jews, some of whom received the gospel (including the Ruler of the Synagogue, Crispus). But most did not, so Paul left them and went next door to the house of Titius Justus, and there the new church got its start. (This is all in Acts 18, by the way.) Titius Justus was what was called a “God-fearer,” a Roman who had abandoned paganism and believed in the God of the Jews, but who hadn’t converted to Judaism. There were a lot of them around in those days.

The thing I want you to notice is that the Corinthian church is made up of Jews of various sorts - Antiochene, Alexandrian, and Aramaic – each with a slightly different perspective on the gospel, as well as Gentiles of various sorts - Romans, Greeks, Phrygians, whatnot. And in addition to cultural and theological differences to sort out, there was the usual problem of combining the rich and the poor, not to mention slave-owners and slaves, within the same congregation. This is a church where everything is ripe for misunderstanding, and where at any time someone might easily take offense at what someone else thinks is only right and good.

As I say, Paul stayed in Corinth for a year and a half, and then went to Ephesus, across the Aegean Sea. While he was there, he received a letter from the Corinthians, asking for guidance on certain theological and disciplinary questions, but he also got an earful from some visitors from Corinth, as well as probably other letters from people he trusted back there. Things were not going well in the Corinthian church, so Paul wrote this letter to them to start to sort things out.

The first issue he tackles is the issue of factions in the Church, which takes up a quarter of the letter – Chapters 1-4 (which is too much to read, which is why I’m just skipping through it this morning).
I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there is quarreling among you, my brethren. (1:10-11)
Now, people are naturally quarrelsome, and especially so in a situation where so many differences in background and viewpoint have to be accommodated, as in the Corinthian church. People divide up into cliques or factions or interest groups even when there’s only a few of them, and lots of congregations are torn apart by feuds of one kind or another now and then; not to mention, larger groups vying for control of large institutions, at which point we begin to talk about parties, movements, or “wings” of the Church.

And sometimes, there are important issues at stake, but all too often, it really comes down to, I want my way. Or, I don't like So-and-so. And even when truly important issues are at stake, this kind of attitude colors those issues and makes everything personal, adding to the hurt. Still, you can fight about anything. As Henry Kissinger once said of academic politics, they are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small. And the more picayune the issue, the more you have to dress them up in high-sounding issues.

In the Corinthians’ case, they are arguing over which Christian leader offers the best way of following Christ.
What I mean is that each of you says, "I belong to Paul," or "I belong to Apollos," or "I belong to Cephas" [the Aramaic version of "Peter"], or "I belong to Christ." (1:12)
In addition to appropriating these leaders – who all agree among themselves, and haven’t done anything to encourage this kind of partisanship by the way – they are arguing over the wisdom of this leader’s kind of Christianity vs. that leader’s kind of Christianity, which Paul confronts by saying,
Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? (1:20)
Their pretensions to wisdom are just a smokescreen for their own vanity. They have nothing to do with the way the kingdom of heaven works.
Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom [says Paul], although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. (2:6)
And you can’t know this wisdom the way you’re going, for
The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. (2:14)
And then Paul goes on to talk about how God used Paul and Apollos and other leaders to work together to help bring the Corinthians to faith in Christ and build them up in love and service. In other words, if you were as spiritual as you think you are, you’d all be working together, instead of choosing up sides and showing off how noble and wise you are. And then he warns them about this tendency to quarrel. He says – and this is really important –
Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? If any one destroys God's temple, God will destroy him. For God's temple is holy, and that temple you are. (3:16-17)
Some people wrongly interpret “temple” here to mean our physical body. But Paul here is referring to the “temple” of the Church, which he laid out like a master builder and which others are now working on while he’s away. You – plural – you all there together – are the temple of God, and whoever destroys this temple will be destroyed by God, for you will pull down on your own heads the only thing that brings you the gospel.
[So,] let no one deceive himself. If any one among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, "He catches the wise in their craftiness," and again, "The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile." So let no one boast of men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future, all are yours; and you are Christ's; and Christ is God's. (3:18-23)
And then, as an aside, he talks about the role of Christian leaders – especially those we today call the clergy. This is matter very near and dear to my heart. He says,
This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. (4:1)
It is unutterably precious to me that I have been called by God and entrusted by the Church with the teaching of the faith, with the celebration of the sacraments, with the care of souls. I am not worthy of so great an honor, nor am I strong enough or wise enough to do it on my own.

I am a steward of the mysteries of God. My teaching is not my own, I have received it from others, and hope to pass it on, as pure and powerful as it was given to me. There is nothing holy or magical about my hands that they should be authorized to baptize or offer the body and blood of Christ – and it’s important that whenever I do that, I do it the right way, trying to make others see Christ at the altar, not me. For that matter, I have done nothing to earn the love and trust of those who come to me for guidance unto Christ; nor have I earned a place at the head of the family when we hallow a wedding or lay a loved one to rest, but that place is reserved for me, to act as Christ toward those in need of Christ.

It is all a sacred trust. And as Paul says,
Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy. (4:2)
The clergy are set apart, as a special group within the church, in order that they might hold each other accountable: so that the story they pass on doesn’t get garbled; so that the sacraments are fittingly celebrated; so that God’s people are bound together and lifted up to Christ, not divided up and made into little marching societies, tearing at each other for power.

We do not offer the world’s wisdom – nor our own wisdom, which comes to the same thing. All that is just talk. Our desire is that people shall find God through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, for as Paul says,
. . . the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power. (4:20)
Why does our church struggle so much? Not only our little congregation, but the whole UMC? Why is the power of God so little in evidence among us? Is it not because we have sacrificed the power of love -- and holiness -- for the catchy, the trendy, the socially up-to-date? Talk. All talk. And no power. As someone once said to me when we were discussing the Church, “the marquee is all lit up, but there ain’t no show inside.”

In vain do people talk of unity, as if unity were an end in itself – as if you could reconcile faithfulness and unfaithfulness, by attending one more pep rally. We divide ourselves up into little factions with godly-sounding names and then think we can paper it all over with meaningless talk of unity, without addressing the real issues before us.

And who is to say what are the real issues? What issues are worth striving for? That’s easy. Where you find the power of God, you will find the wisdom of God. If there is no outpouring of love, of repentance, of sacrifice, of holiness, of willing to be less in order that Christ shall be made more, then you do not build up, but rather tear down.

Years ago, I was part of a contentious board meeting of our Walk to Emmaus community. Walk to Emmaus is an ecumenical movement, but the standards are set by the Upper Room, which is a United Methodist agency. And you know how we love rules. Some of those from more easy-going churches were complaining about the pickiness of all the rules we were required to operate under. Their churches didn’t require all this guff, they said, so why should they have to operate by United Methodist rules in order to join in this ministry? To which a friend of mine who attended a charismatic church responded, “I don’t understand all these rules either. But I believe God blesses obedience.” And nobody could add anything to that.

God blesses obedience. He blesses humility. He blesses love, and love does not insist on its own way, as Paul says later in this letter. And God will bless us if we will give over our pride in our own wisdom and be foolish enough to do it his way.

Amen.

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Saturday, September 17th, 2016
9:24 pm - Some thoughts on doing Church better
I have been a minister of the gospel for forty years now. I have been an adult leader in Scouting for even longer. I have noticed a lot of similarities between the Church and Scouting. Both Scouting and the Church use volunteers to work with other people (especially kids), and have similar challenges in recruitment and training and leadership. Leading a Pack, Troop, or Crew is not dissimilar to leading a Sunday School class, youth group, or other ministry. Both BSA and The UMC are large, bureaucratic organizations with lots of institutional assets which nevertheless grapple with long-term decline. And so on. Ever since I began pastoring in 1976, I have taken lessons learned in one environment to apply in the other environment. For instance, I'd never been part of a youth group, so I didn't know a lot about youth ministry back then -- but I knew how to take kids camping from Boy Scouts, so we did a fair amount of camping with that first youth group at Pleasantville, and I have done so ever since in my work with youth.

Anyway, I want to make some comparisons between Scouting and the Church which may shock or offend some people. Let me hasten to say, therefore, that in any contest between the two I will always affirm the Church as of more importance; yea, of eternal importance. And I also want to point out that one could compare the Church with other forms of social organization, such as sports, or corporate culture, or academia, or politics. There are things that each kind of endeavor can learn from the others; I just know Scouting best in comparison to the Church. So here are my three comparisons, letting the chips fall where they may:

By and large, Scouters are more aware of, and understand better, the goals and processes of Scouting than Church members are aware of, and understand, the goals and processes of the Church.

By and large, Scouters are more active and committed in their volunteer work in Scouting than Church members are active and committed in their volunteer work in the Church.

By and large, Scouters are friendlier to other Scouters and more welcoming of new people who show an interest in Scouting than Church members are of new participants in the Church.
Let me now discuss those statements a bit. In the first, I said that Scouters, by and large -- not thinking now in terms of individual cases -- know and understand their goals and processes better than Church folk know theirs. I think this is because Scouting makes a constant effort to try to train their adult leaders. They constantly reiterate their goals. They teach skills. They know that units led by untrained leaders tend to flounder and die, disappointing kids and weakening the whole organization. So they work at it. In contrast, the Church articulates its discipleship goals very haphazardly, and rarely attempts to train anybody for ministry roles. When we do attempt it, we mostly just do pep rally stuff, which doesn't help anybody with their actual tasks. And then we wonder why we can't retain Sunday School teachers, why youth groups founder, why discipleship groups peter out. We don't work at it.

In the second statement, I said that Scouters, by and large, are more active and committed than Church members are to their respective endeavors. Now, there are lazy and feckless Scouters, even as there are dynamic and spirit-filled Church members. But on the whole, most of the Scouters I know are very busy with their Scouting. Particularly if they are the main leader of a unit, they rarely miss a meeting. And they and many others do many other meetings and events in order to keep up with things and provide opportunities for the kids they work with. In contrast to that, even some of our more prominent Church leaders often have track records of attendance far less impressive than they used to be: when I began in ministry, one would have to attend probably forty-plus weeks a year in order to call oneself a "regular attender," and many so qualified; now, many of our church folk who attend barely half the weeks in the year will call themselves "regular attenders." Meanwhile, the Scouters who are attending Council and District and Lodge events in addition to their unit activities stand in stark contrast with many Church members for whom anything happening at some location other than their local congregation is seen as too much of a bother to participate in. And we wonder why newcomers don't see how vibrant and exciting it is to serve Christ here. Well, we don't act vibrant and excited, do we?

In the third statement, I said that Scouters, by and large, are friendlier and more welcoming than Church folk. Now, there are churlish Scouters, as well as Scouters who don't get on with each other. But I could paper my house with thank you certificates from serving in very minor capacities on Scouting events. I have all kinds of patches for things I've gone to, as well as other special recognitions. The Church rarely thanks anybody. And yeah, sometimes when I go to Scouting events, I'll get lost in the crush and feel kind of out of place, but very often there'll be someone there who will light up when he or she sees me and I get a lot of good strokes from people who are genuinely glad that I came to whatever it was. Meanwhile, there are many times when I feel like a ghost among Church folk, or even fellow clergy. What must it be like for new laypersons to try to break into the fellowship ring of a congregation, when we ignore each other so? And we wonder why people don't notice what a friendly, welcoming congregation we are? Well, as Jesus said, if you greet only those who greet you, how are you better than the Gentiles? Even they do that.

Over the years, I have tried to use what I have learned in each venue of ministry to broaden the appeal and deepen the impact of the other. There are things that BSA could learn from the Church, if it would, and sometimes I am the lone voice at Council Executive Board meetings pointing out stuff that nobody else thought of. But there are also things that the Church could learn from Scouting, if it would, and I think we would be the better for it.

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Monday, September 12th, 2016
4:05 pm - Today's little project
I had to go to Indianapolis this morning to see someone in the hospital. After I got back to E-ville, I had to go to the other side of Bloomington to run an errand. When I got back from that, I knew I would have to take down the two tents I had set up in my back yard, drying and airing out from this weekend's camping trip.

When I pulled into the parsonage driveway, the crew from the church's lawn service was there, mowing both church and parsonage yards. Great. That meant that there were grass clippings all over the tents, which would have to be swept off. It also meant that when I took the tents down and put them away, there would be two unmown patches in the yard where they had stood.

"I thought you guys came on Tuesday," I said to one of the guys. He said he'd always come on Mondays. I don't know what's right; I do know that the date of service is a constant bone of contention between the Trustees and the lawn service. Okay, let that go, I thought. Just get the tents put away. As I was rolling them up, I asked one of the crew members about the mass of weeds on the edge of the yard next to one of our church lots that I had asked to be mown flat. We had been to great trouble to get the weed trees out of that patch of ground and had repeatedly asked the lawn service to keep the area mown flat. The reply from the supervisor was that he had checked with the boss, and that was considered "landscaping," not "mowing." It would be a separate appointment -- and another charge - to take care of it.

To look around our little yard is to see masses of weeds that are taking over the edges of things. The lawn service mows right up to the weeds and stops -- landscaping, not mowing! -- but that means that every time they mow, they mow a little less, as the weeds advance along the edges of house and garage, the verge of sidewalks, along the fence. I don't remember them being so delicate before; we had to put a little wire fence up around the patch of peonies and sunflowers in the side yard, lest they mow them down. Anyway, after they left, I got to work to clean up what they consider to be not their job.

I had no power tools; my lawnmower is kaput, and my electric weed eater isn't much better. But I had a full-sized, rusty ol' scythe, a machete, pruning saw, limb loppers, rake and broom! And with those I went to work. I first cleaned out an old flower bed the Girl Scouts dug the mess out of (after which we asked it be kept mown flat): there was a foot and a half to two feet of actual yard under the advancing weeds that was not being mown. I cleaned out the masses of morning glory vines between the sidewalk and the back of the garage. I hacked into the mass of stuff I asked the lawn service to keep mown. I cleaned out the verge of the alley, where a little patch of rose bush had become a mass of weeds (including a volunteer box elder sapling) because nobody would keep it mown. I cleaned out the weeds between the fence and the corner parking lot, where the vines were beginning to encircle the concrete parking bumpers. And when I was all done, I gathered up the yard waste and put it in the back of my little pickup truck, thusly:

yard waste

Yard Waste
Left over AFTER the mowers finished

Now, be it noted, I leave actual decisions about lawn care to the Trustees. I give my advice when asked for or I feel strongly about something, but lawn care's not in my Top Ten concerns about the church. And the Trustees have got a tough job, and I don't want to add to their grief by complaining. I also know and like the owner of our lawn service, and I wouldn't want to abuse my pastoral office by blackguarding a community-owned business by name in a blogpost. Nevertheless, neighbors and friends will all know whom I'm talking about, so there's no need to drop names, anyway.

My $0.02 worth is, if I were asked to give a reference for this lawn service, I would, in old country fashion, have to say that they were "as useless as [mammary glands] on a [male pig]."

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Friday, September 9th, 2016
7:39 am - Today is National Teddy Bear Day
I collect bears. My first bear was Joe. Joe Bear was my teddy bear, given to me when I was about three years old. My mommy made his fancy duds, at my request. Once, I asked Mother for a nightshirt for him. She gave me a little striped shirt with snaps on the shoulder, a shirt made for a child just barely entering toddlerhood. When she gave me that shirt, I remembered wearing it. So that memory-of-a-memory is my earliest memory, of me being so small (about one? one and a half?) that my head was too big to go through a t-shirt neck hole.

Joe's retired now, so I bought him a little rocking chair to sit in. Like the Skin Horse in The Velveteen Rabbit, much of his fur has been loved off. He has become Real.

Some of my colleagues look at me askance when I talk about the sacramental value of teddy bears. C.S. Lewis said that attributing life and independent personality in order to have a relationship with an object is what "playing with it" means in a child's life. Being tucked into bed with a trusted stuffed friend means you're not really alone. It means you can face the darkness and the quiet of the house and go to sleep unafraid. It means, in effect, that the teddy bear is a stand-in for God against the day when you have a relationship directly with him and can face your fears through prayer.

Every now and then, I bring Joe to church to make this point with small children, or a similar one. They understand. Some people might look askance at my attitude toward Joe, as they might tease young children about their bears, but I tell them all, "You never make fun of a guy's bear." The people who do are just whistling in the dark, denying their own need for comfort or announcing their lack of it. Of course, the great object is to leave behind our little sacramentals and rest in our Savior's love, directly and consciously. But whatever helps us get to that point -- teddy bears, rosaries, a "prayer closet" -- is an aid to devotion, not a distraction.

Joe

Joe Bear

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Monday, September 5th, 2016
9:20 pm - Come, let us build the wall,
quoth Nehemiah.

My buddy Zach came out today to help me start laying block in the holler. He arrived about mid-morning. We spent an hour or so scraping and scouring, so that the concrete footer was basically clean. Then we tried to figure out how to mix mortar. The mortar recipe I got from my how-to-do-it book read like a pioneer grandma's pie crust recipe. But we eventually got an acceptable mix.

Getting the first block laid is a finicky process. Laying the first block you've ever laid is a harrowing thing. Zach's background is in IT and Byzantine History. I'm an English major who became an ordained minister. We're not exactly tool-smart, and neither of us has ever done any masonry. So it was slow work.

By the time we'd got three blocks laid as square, level, and plumb as we could get them, the sun was beating on our heads down below. I felt light-headed. Zach insisted I rest. I was sitting on my truck tailgate drinking water, when I decided (I guess) to step around the truck and do something. Instead, I blacked out momentarily. I came to in the bushes by the side of the road where I had pitched headlong. Zach was calling after me. He helped me up, and we rested for an hour in the cabin, sipping water. I had a little lunch.

Eventually, we went out and laid a fourth block, just to use up our mortar. I've learned so much today. I'll be much better prepared the next time I have to mix mortar and lay block. But I'll never be better looked-after than I was today when the heat got to me. Bless you, Zach.

After we cleaned tools, we spent some time just talking in the cabin. Zach left at 5:00, I cleaned up the cabin and was on my way by 5:40-ish. Reached home just after 8:00. Looking forward, I figure I can lay block right up until we get some frost. Zach may be available to help some more, but if I'm by myself you can bet I'll get an early start and quit before the sun gets high, at least for a while.

CIMG5890 (2)

It's a start.
It's bootiful.

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Sunday, September 4th, 2016
4:47 pm - Two more Eagles fledged
I gave the invocation and benediction at a rare double Eagle Court of Honor. With my usually inappropriate mindset, I hand to restrain myself from coming up to the pulpit and saying,
Dearly beloved, we are gathered together today in the sight of God and the presence of these witnesses to award to Tyler and Patrick the rank of Eagle Scout: which is an honorable estate, instituted by the Boy Scouts of America and signifying unto us the acquisition of many skills and the accumulation of many Merit Badges. Unto this exalted status these two come to be inaugurated.
And so on.

Anyway, it was a nice ceremony, and congratulations to Tyler and Patrick, best buds who finished the trail together. They are both going to do their first adult leader training by attending the Introduction to Outdoor Leader Skills course I'm leading next weekend.

After the ceremony, we had pulled pork (which must be why Jesus declared all foods to be clean). And I got to sit and have a nice long talk with high school seniors Harry, Zach, and Anthony. We talked about literature and history, mostly, which they are studying these days. Lots of stuff about fairy tales and the modern criticism thereof. I got to open their eyes to a whole bunch of other voices (including Tolkien and Shippey) who are more off the beaten track. Anyway, we ranged from Fairy Tales to Dante to Chaucer to Gilgamesh to Ehud the Left-Handed Judge (Kara's contribution, via last week's sermon) to WW I, WW II, Beowulf, etc. I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Such smart young men! And they don't miss a trick. I am proud to have had a part in their growing up.

This year, Troop 119 will have something like 7+ Eagles, the most for a single year in its half century of operations. Wow.

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Saturday, September 3rd, 2016
11:29 am - All things bright and beautiful
Laundry wasn't folded yet when I got going this morning, so I was really digging down into my sartorial pile today. When I came downstairs with this on, Deanne looked at me and just said, "wow." I know, it's not my usual style. But I can carry it off.

All things bright and beautiful

Let the sun shine in
The dawning of the Age of Asparagus

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Wednesday, August 31st, 2016
3:58 pm - Come aboard, Matey!
When we unloaded all of Anna's family stuff from two years in storage, Daniel found the bespoke toy chest that had been built for him, with his initials carved in the lid. James had no toy chest personal to him.

Meanwhile, I had this old pirate's chest from Michael's. It was unfinished pine, with rickety chains holding the lid inside. I only ever used it for Chrysalis Flights, when I gave the Means of Grace talk. (Emmaus folk will understand the reference.) Well, I haven't done a Chrysalis talk in over ten years. The chest has just been gathering dust in my office. And so . . .

I painted the box with brown shoe polish (an old trick I learned years ago, in my heyday of building bookcases). I attached good chrome hasps inside and leather thongs to hold the lid open without banging back and wrenching the hinges out. And lastly, I went to the local engraving shop and had a nameplate made.

I have an appointment at the Conference office in the morning in Indy. After that, I'm heading for Richmond to give Master James his own personal sea chest to keep his treasures in.

Cabin Boy"s Sea Chest

Cabin Boy's Sea Chest

Stow yer swag in here

Stow yer swag in here

Nameplate

Nameplate

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Tuesday, August 30th, 2016
9:01 am - What I'm reading
I bought a slew of non-fiction books on Amazon for my continuing education reading, to wit:

The Rage Against God, by Peter Hitchens;
The Road to Serfdom, by F.A. Hayek;
Basic Economics, by Thomas Sowell;
The Secret Knowledge, by David Mamet;
A Conflict of Visions, by Thomas Sowell.

Deanne asked me why I was reading so much Economics all of a sudden. I mean, I learned most of the economics I know from Scrooge McDuck, and who could improve on that? I replied that Economics talks about the same issues that Sociology talks about, which talks about the same issues that Politics talks about, which talks about the same issues that Philosophy talks about: ideology; culture; the kind of world we live in, and the kind of world we should want to live in. And that all impinges on religion.

As far as the presidential campaign goes, nobody -- NOBODY -- in the race is talking about the things I value. I'm an old Whig, a Burkean classic liberal. I believe in civil society and the importance of tradition. I believe in personal freedom and personal responsibility. I believe in smaller government and I distrust elites of all sorts. I believe that "separation of church and state" is supposed to protect the church(es) from the state, not the other way around. I don't believe in throwing one's weight around, but I believe that bullies have to be stood up to -- whether those bullies are on the playground, or in the government, or running other countries. And most of all, I want to be free to live as a Christian and teach others how to do the same.

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Sunday, August 28th, 2016
9:09 pm - This is what makes typing at the keyboard so difficult these days
My baby

My baby
Hera curling up in Daddy's arms

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Wednesday, August 24th, 2016
9:11 pm - Adventures in Cooking, Part Two
Scotch Barbecue Sauce, Continued

So, how did I get into this? I mean, who'd'a thunk of using Scotch in a barbecue sauce? Well, it all happened years ago when I came into possession of a $90 bottle of Laphroaig. It was a full 18 years old, which made it smooth as could be, but being from the western Isles, it was also unbelievably smoky. Too smoky for me. I thought it was a shame to waste a $90 bottle of anything, so I cast about for some other use for this whisky than holiday toasts. In a flash of perverse insight, I decided it would make a good base for a barbecue sauce. My first batch made with the Laphroaig was okay, but needed a little sweetening. So I added apples for a smoother sweetness. The pulpiness of the apples thickening the sauce was a bonus. And there we are.

And now that intermission is over, let's get back to the show.

Blending in

Blending in
All the cool guys drive a stick (blender)

All done

All done
Beautiful color, ready to eat

A jarring sight

A jarring sight
Divvying up the swag

Cannery Row

Cannery Row
Saves refrigerator space

In addition to our own use, I make this for dinners we host, for the Scouts' Winter Rendezvous, to give away as gifts, etc. I made the original recipe for a modest batch, but I find it's easier to make a triple batch at a time. Herewith is the recipe.


Scotch Barbecue Sauce

Single Batch / Triple Batch
1 oz butter or olive oil / 3 oz butter or olive oil
½ onion (depending on the size of your onions), rough chopped / 1 ½ - 2 onions
4 cloves garlic, minced / 12 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup young single-malt, Islay-style Scotch whisky / 1 Fifth Scotch
4 small-medium sweet apples, peeled and cored / 12 small-medium apples
2 cups ketchup / 6 cups ketchup (= 64 oz. bottle)
½ cup cider vinegar / 1 ½ cups cider vinegar
½ cup molasses / 1 ½ cups molasses
½ cup brown sugar / 1 ½ cups brown sugar
1 small can (3-3.5 oz) chipotles in adobo sauce / 1 large can (11 oz) chipotles
½ Tbsp salt / 1 ½ Tbsp salt
½ Tbsp ground mustard / 1 ½ Tbsp ground mustard
½ tsp black pepper / 1 ½ tsp black pepper
Heat Dutch oven to medium-low. Add butter or oil. Sweat onion and garlic until they become translucent. Add Scotch and apples. Simmer 5-10 minutes.

Add remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil. Drop heat to low, cover and simmer for 1 hour. Stir occasionally to keep from sticking.

Puree sauce (I use a stick blender). You can chill and serve or can the product. Makes about 3 pints (9 pints for triple recipe).

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7:28 pm - Adventures in Cooking
Scotch Barbecue Sauce

The time has come to make another batch of my signature Scotch Barbecue Sauce. I usually make a triple batch, because it's a pain to make this -- and besides, I keep giving it away.

The recipe is simple. It yields a nice sauce with just enough heat, just enough sweeetness, just enough smoke. It adds greatly to brisket or pulled pork (or whatever), but the taste doesn't linger after you're finished with the dish.

The secret ingredient is a young single malt Islay-style Scotch whisky. This gives a nice smokiness to the sauce and an underlying barley strength. The alcohol mostly cooks off. The only other out of the ordinary thing is my use of apples as a sweetener. Raw sugar is the usual sweetener in BBQ sauces, and they come out harsh. The apples add a smoother sweetness, as well as some pulp that affects the final texture of the sauce.

Anyway, here's the process up to now.

Mise en place

Mise en place
French for "the fixins"

The cauldron

The cauldron
Double, double, toil and trouble

Sweating it out

Sweating it out
Garlic and onions begin the parade

Apples inprocess

Apples in process
For sweetness and thickening

Whisky, whisky

Whisky, Whisky
Nancy Whisky

Apples join the party

Apples join the party
Now we're getting somewhere

Chipotles for kick and a bit more smoke

Chipotles for kick and a bit more smoke
Imagine yourself wearing a kilt and a sombrero

Everybody into the pool

Everybody into the pool
The remaining ingredients are added

The sauce will now simmer on the stove top for the next hour. It will be a rich, reddish mahogany color when it's done. More pix to follow.

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Sunday, August 21st, 2016
9:14 pm - It's not a feature, it's a bug.
Had a couple of these big ol' things in a sapling by the side of my drive at Wilderstead. Nearest I can tell, it's a Cecropia Moth caterpillar. They mostly eat maple leaves, but are found in other trees, as well. This one and its companion were in a box elder sapling. Box elder is in the maple family, for what it's worth.

Cecropia Moth Caterpillar

Cecropia Moth Caterpillar

I don't keep track of bugs much, but I saw a Diana Fritillary in the holler, along with some grasshoppers, a wasp or two, etc. I'll be waiting to see the Cecropias one of these days.

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7:35 pm - A little target practice
Just for the heck of it, I got out my B-B gun while out in the holler and took a few shots at -- oh, big leaves and such. I figured I'd see the leaves ripple as I shot them, but B-Bs move so fast, they punch through without a quiver. In fact, at first I thought I'd just missed entirely.

But out of seven shots, I could see seven little pinholes in that dinner-plate-sized leaf. Funny thing, though, they were all off about three inches to the left of the center I was aiming for. They were up and down a bit, too, but then, I was shooting standing up with no support. It was the consistent off-to-the-left pattern that concerned me.

So I aimed at another leaf and ripped off seven shots left-handed. Years ago, a rifle instructor diagnosed me as cross-eye dominant, and I got better scores when I shot left-handed. Now, I thought I'd learned to correct for that, but when I went up to this leaf, I saw six little holes, still up and down, but all of them in the center of the leaf.

I shoot better left-handed. It feels really awkward, but my dominant eye sights in on the target so much more easily. Whether it's B-B gun, .22 rifle, or bow, I just do better when I switch. Except for shotgun, which for some reason I do as well right-handed as I do left-handed. Maybe because it's more instinct, and less about lining up the sights.

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12:49 pm - Ave et vale: Lightning
Lightning has died. I came home overnight to do some laundry and get some rest. He was fine at 4:00 p.m. Thursday, August 19. He came up to me to get his butt scratched. I packed up and set things in order and left for Wilderstead about 5:30. I was last upstairs about 5:00.

Deanne got home about 6:00 or so, and was looking for Lightning to give him his pill about 7:00. Hera was impatiently waiting for them both to be fed. Deanne went upstairs a little after 7:00, and found Lightning at the head of the stairs, dead and already stiffening. She called me on my cell phone as I was passing through North Vernon.

"Lightning's dead!" she said, in a frantic tone of voice. I pulled over to talk. She asked where I was and if I could come back and get him to bury him in the holler. I explained that I was two hours down the road; if I returned to fetch him and then went on to Wilderstead, I wouldn't arrive to dig his grave until midnight. So Deanne called in at Middle Way House to excuse herself from service that night, placed Lightning in a pillow case and put him in the trunk of her car and starting driving for the holler.

I arrived at our cabin. The sun was going down behind Akes Hill. I fetched a shovel and headed across the creek to the Hallows. Luckily, I had mowed the trail to our little pet cemetery -- even mowed around the cairns -- two days before. I finished digging the grave just as the light failed. Deanne drove up to the cabin some time just after 10:00. I put Lightning in a wheel barrow and took him across the creek.

As I was gathering him up to place him in his grave, I pulled back the pillow case. His head was as handsome as ever. He seemed to be merely sleeping. I tucked him back in the pillow case and snuggled him down into the bottom of the grave. Then I carefully packed the dirt in around him and filled it in. I left the wheelbarrow upside down over the grave overnight, since I didn't want to go blundering around the creek in the middle of the night, gathering stones for a cairn.

Deanne stayed overnight in the cabin and looked over his grave in the morning, before returning to Ellettsville. I went on to do lots of other work in the holler. As the evening was coming on, I gathered several loads of creek rock and built his cairn. He rests besides Sassafras.

His sudden death was probably some sort of heart attack, but we'll never know. Deanne and I were both very sad at his passing. We thanked God for the gift of his life, and we were glad to have been so faithful in our responsibility for him.

Lightning was a shelter cat. We got him and Hera in early 2010. He was the younger; in fact, he was probably too young to be separated from his momma, too young to be neutered. The vet warned us that he would have some developmental problems because of his hurried start on life. He certainly had personality problems. Deanne described his attitude as "I hate you -- don't leave me." He could be affectionate, on his terms. He liked being petted, but hated being held. And he would strike out on a whim. He would even chase James. We had to fit him with SoftPaws while the boys lived with us.

Here are a few pictures of our boy Lightning, the White Leopard. The first is an early one, from his kittenhood. The second is one I took just a couple of weeks ago. The last is a typical pose. We didn't dare leave the butter out; it was about the only human food he would get into.

Dinner for one

Dinner for one

Who, me?

Who, me?

I want lots of butter and sour cream

I want lots of butter and sour cream

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Thursday, August 18th, 2016
11:35 pm - Book Review
A Week in the Life of Corinth,
Ben Witherington III


I got a package from my old seminary this last week. I opened it up, and there was this book by Ben Witherington III, Amos Professor of NT at Asbury Theological Seminary. No letter accompanied the book, no explanation why it was sent. It obviously wasn’t sent to all alumni, or Deanne would have gotten a copy, too. MDiv recipients? People who answered the alumni phonathon? I have no idea.

Still, the book looked interesting. It was a novel of sorts, a fictional presentation of some of the events alluded to in Acts 18, including Paul’s appearance before the governor, Gallio. Real, historical personages mix with fictional figures in this book. Sidebars give explanations of historical practices, 1st Century Roman and Greek culture, and so on. So, we have education as well as narrative.

Witherington has a very high reputation among evangelical scholars, so I looked forward greatly to reading this book. That said, it wasn’t long before I began to make critical notes in my copy. For a scholar dealing with the 1st Century, I thought, his grasp of Latin is pretty sloppy. No doubt he could run rings around me in Koiné Greek, but even my high school Latin is apparently better than his.

For instance, he has a priest of Aesclepius calling for silence before an offering, saying to the assembled guests, ”Tacit!” (“Be silent!”) Except he wouldn’t have said that. I mean, I’ll give him that an offering conducted by the Roman governor might be in Latin – I would have thought they would be speaking Greek at this occasion – but even then, tacit is not a recognized form of the verb tacere. The 2nd person singular imperative would be Taci! or in the plural, Tacete! "Tacit" is an English word derived from tacere.

“Oh, picky, picky, Art,” I hear you say. Who cares if the ending of a verb is wrong? Well, I would think Dr. Witherington would. After all, when he exegetes the Greek New Testament, I’m sure he analyzes each word to determine exactly what it means. A student mishandling an inflection would be sure to be corrected. These little grammatical things matter, and often great matters of interpretation hinge upon them. Nor is this the only instance of the author's Latin that made me question his usage.

For instance, take this cultural mistake. At one point, he has Paul sweeping leather shavings from his tent-making work from his toga as he gets up to go someplace. Now, Paul, as a Roman citizen, was entitled to wear a toga, but I’m guessing that Paul the Jew from Tarsus would have thought it an affectation to wear one. And he would probably be sneered at by the Romans in Corinth if he did, too. The toga was the Roman male dress suit – rather like “white tie” for us. Paul wouldn’t be wearing it to work in, even if he owned one. I’m sure what he was wearing was a tunica -- a tunic. Likewise, Witherington refers to Camilla, wife of Erastos, pulling her toga over her head when looking out in the rain. I’m sure she did no such thing. The toga was male attire (except in the case of prostitutes, who evidently paraded in flame-colored togas on festival days – the probable source of the Whore of Babylon’s appearance in Revelation). Camilla’s wrap would probably have been a palla, assuming she was in Roman dress, rather than Greek.

Once again, “picky, picky,” I hear you say. But if we’re just considering the narrative for what it’s worth, well, it’s a nice, well-constructed story, but it’s not exactly deathless prose. Witherington’s characters tend to speak in late American clichés, as when Nicanor says, “I love it when a plan comes together.” Let’s face it, y’ain’t readin’ this for the literary value. Or why include the historical sidebars? No, this book’s readers are reading it because it is by Dr. Ben Witherington, the scholar of early Christianity. They trust that he will give them an accurate presentation in all respects of what 1st Century Corinth – and the 1st Century Christian Church – were really like.

And here, too, there are things that boggle me. The author explains Roman roads, dining customs, all kinds of trivia – but then he drops in details that are essential to his story that are just begging for explanation. He explains the practice of 1st Century prophesying, but then punts on what 1st Century Eucharistic liturgy might have looked like. In effect, he has Paul presiding over a low-church protestant/evangelical/charismatic communion like what we might find on a Walk to Emmaus. Even in the 1st Century, before composed Eucharistic prayers, nobody would have conducted a service that casually. And to have Nicanor – and his bodyguard, Krackus – be invited to the dinner and take communion with everybody else, unbaptized and uninstructed as they are, is one giant anachronism. So far as I know, the first church leader to shrug off unbaptized persons taking communion was John Wesley, who was dealing with an evangelistic situation in which there were many baptized persons who had no faith and no instruction, all mixed together with unbaptized persons who were also coming to faith in Christ. Wesley thought it a barrier to separate the baptized and unbaptized before communion in a Methodist setting, since all were more or less on the same faith level, and began to talk of communion as a “converting ordinance.” So this is an entirely modern practice.

Then there are all the little details. One of the puzzles of the NT is why Sosthenes is the ruler of the synagogue accusing Paul in Gallio’s court in Acts 18, but then winds up the co-author of 1 Corinthians, which Paul sends later from Ephesus. There’s a story there, but Witherington decides not to tell it. He makes Erastos the host of the church in Corinth, though Acts is clear that when Paul left the synagogue, he went next door to the house of the God-fearer Titius Justus. He says his villain, Aemilianus, is a direct descendant of the dictator Sulla. (I presume this character is fictional; his descent – real or imaginary – would, I guess, be through Sulla’s daughter Cornelia Sulla, who married Mamercus Aemilius Lepidus Livianus. The –anus ending shows that he was born a Livius, but was adopted into the gens Aemilia; the villain here would then be supposed to be a descendant of Lepidus and Cornelia, adopted into the gens Aurelia. All top-drawer families to be connected to.) He has the snooty Aemilianus offer to adopt the freedman Nicanor as his heir, without even a previous patron/client relationship. (This is preposterous.) And on and on and on.

If you don’t know any better, this is a nice story, an easy read for the summer. But if you go to this expecting to see a great scholar bringing the New Testament world to life, I’m afraid you will find it a weak reed to lean on. Dr. Witherington could have used a good editor to make this better as both a novel and New Testament interpretive demonstration.

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