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Thursday, March 23rd, 2017
12:40 pm - The window, the window
It's been a while since I've posted any pics of our progress on the stained glass project. We are working on the last of the four windows now. I hope to be done with glass work by Easter; then we turn our attention to carpentry. We're aiming at a June 4th dedication.

Making progress

Making progress

The glass pieces on the top panel aren't for that panel. They're actually the rough-cut pieces for the other hand holding the chalice in the middle panel.

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Wednesday, March 22nd, 2017
12:04 pm - My $0.02 worth
As The United Methodist Church lurches ever more painfully toward its next encounter with itself -- meaning, the report of the Commission on a Way Forward and the probable called General Conference to follow it -- various leaders are expressing what they think we should do. They're also saying where they stand, and what they find non-negotiable. Here's where I'm coming from.

As fairly new converts looking for someplace to call home, Deanne and I stumbled across The UMC. My parents -- who literally stomped out of a Methodist Church in 1964 (in the middle of the pastoral prayer, all three kids in tow) -- were reconciling with the UM congregation in the town they'd moved to after I'd gone off to college. As part of the new member curriculum of that congregation, the pastor gave my parents and other participants in the class a pamphlet published by The UM Publishing House. It was the excerpt from the Discipline on our theological standards (sadly, no longer available).

I borrowed that pamphlet and there first encountered The Articles of Religion. I said to Deanne, "I'd like to belong to a church that believed that." We then wandered up the street to First UMC of Terre Haute, Indiana, just two blocks from our first apartment. We crashed the doors cold, and that's where we made our professions of faith a few weeks later. The rest, as they say, is history.

Anyway, my orientation toward The UMC has always been primarily theological. I could have joined any denomination, but I joined this one because of its expressed, official beliefs. Nowadays, it's fashionable to pooh-pooh theology, giving it second place to "mission" -- which, all too often, just means, whatever stuff I like to see the church doing. And certainly, theology without mission, like faith without works, is dead. But mission without theology, works without faith, is not the Gospel, either. And I give primacy to beliefs because they are like a compass. Theology defines north and south -- or, rather, truth and error, right and wrong. Without that compass, you can energetically and effectively head off in the wrong direction, to the great loss of everyone accompanying you.

I had only begun on my journey toward leadership in The UMC when I had to deal with the fact that not everybody on the journey with me actually believed our official statements. I thought that was unfortunate, but so long as the Discipline still officially said, "this is what we believe and teach," then there was no reason for me to leave. I was on the right side of the denomination, not they. If they were in error, it was not my fault. And I would do the best I could to preach and teach the truth, humbly seeking to correct any errors that I might fall into myself along the way.

At any rate, while there was a fair amount of falsity or casuistry concerning our official beliefs, for a long time at least everybody knew what the rules were for clergy. And the rules were enforced, at least in behavioral terms. I might grit my teeth and endure heresy or immorality being preached and taught, but at least the practical rules on what we could get away with doing were reasonably consistent, and consistently enforced by bishops and superintendents.

Nowadays, rules are pretty much whatever you can get away with. We have bishops and superintendents who provide cover for some kinds of disobedience, while being stern and inflexible on other kinds of disobedience. Nobody trusts anybody any more, because those who held our trust have shown themselves capricious and willing to connive at disobedience themselves. This is not a reason for abandoning The UMC, just for reforming it. But certainly, if we don't get a handle on this, we will tear ourselves apart.

And behind everything else, there is still that question of theology. Not just our official standards of doctrine, but also our authoritative statements about values. If, in the end, we change those -- or if we so change our rules that those who uphold our doctrine and values are effectively unable to teach them, or punished for teaching them -- then that change is not salvageable.

The Church is a theological organism. If you change the official theology, it isn't what it was, anymore. And if your rules are not in sync with your official beliefs, then the loss of power consequent upon that will doom any effort at "mission," however you define it. Redefining truth, or allowing different bodies within the Church to define it in different ways to justify different things, is like a cell whose enclosing membrane is breached. The cell dies, and so will the Church.

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Tuesday, March 21st, 2017
2:35 pm - The adventure begins
Well, our happy Crew has finally made up the list of the committed (yeah, we oughta be committed, I'm thinkin') to go on our Switz Blitz adventure to Kandersteg International Scout Centre this summer. The Crew will consist of: Myself, Alane, T.J. and T.C.

Kandersteg has replied that they're ready to talk turkey about dates and services. I have an insurance form in hand to fill out and return to get a quote on trip insurance. I have handed in our application for an International Letter of Introduction to the Council office. There remained only to lock in airline details to proceed to the next step.

The first quote we'd got last November was $1344 apiece. Then, yesterday the cost was $1544! I ran our budget numbers, and they still looked okay, but that was also because the flights were closer together -- we'd lose a day on our plans. Well, I asked back on something, and the cost had risen fifty bucks, and then they were gone. Prices are rising hourly and tickets are disappearing. I said we'd be willing to stretch a day in either direction in order to get a better deal. Well, the agent came back with quite a deal: price-wise, anyway. In terms of getting there, it will be a bit of an OR-deal, I'm afraid. But that's what adventure is all about. We're getting tickets to Europe for $1251 apiece, which just floors me.

The downside is, we'll have two nights without a proper bed just to get there. Here's the itinerary.
June 11 Indy to Chicago 9:50am – 10am
June 11 Chicago to Istanbul 9:40pm – 4:15pm, June 12
June 12 Istanbul to Geneva 7:20pm – 9:35pm

June 20 Geneva to Istanbul 7am – 11:10am
June 20 Istanbul to Chicago 2:10pm – 5:35pm
June 20 Chicago to Indy 9pm – 11:11pm
Note, there's a ten-hour layover at O'Hare. We could probably drive there and skip the first leg, but that means our driver has to return home alone, from Chicago. So, my guess is, we'll just suck it up. Boredom passes, eventually. The other weirdness is, we land in Geneva late, which means we'll have to take a train at night to Kandersteg. A normally three and a half hour trip will stretch to seven or eight hours, dumping us in Kandersteg Bahnhof in the morning. That'll pretty much wipe out doing anything energetic that first day, but we'll be there. And we have a full week to do all the doin's.

Getting home is pretty simple. We take a late-afternoon train back to Geneva (3.5 hours, this time), hop a plane, and it's off we go. Crossing the Atlantic westwards is the Day That Never Ends, but we'll be home and dry here in E-ville by half past midnight, I'd think.

Pray for us.

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Friday, March 17th, 2017
11:27 am - Immigration in the Age of Patrick
Since the Taoiseach has brought up the subject of St. Patrick's immigration status, I thought it would be helpful if I gave the response I'm afraid Donald Trump doesn't know enough history to have given. That's not a slight on the President; most people don't know this history well.Collapse )

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10:08 am - Begorrah, is it so?
So, apparently the Irish PM told Pres. Trump that St. Patrick was an immigrant. Which is a long story, with more than a few wrinkles, but let that go. What interests me is the willingness of all kinds of people to lecture the Pres. of the US.

My progressive friends will say this is because Trump is uniquely unfit for his office and to rebuke him (politely, in this case) is only what is proper in all right-thinking people.

On the other hand, can you imagine any foreign leader contradicting the Pres. of the US in public -- on US soil -- back in the day (other than the leaders of the Soviet Union and, maybe, France)? It just wasn't done. No matter how much they might fume and fuss in private at whatever President's goals, they needed American goodwill too much. Obama has so devalued American leadership that American leaders can be lectured by foreign leaders on American policy on American soil, and not feel that they risk anything to do so.

I wish Trump would be more measured in his pronouncements and run a less chaotic office. I'm probably going to be disappointed in that hope. Still, he isn't necessarily the biggest wackadoodle we've ever elected. Woodrow Wilson was an egotistical (and racist) crank of the first order, but as the leader of the only undamaged economy at the end of WW 1 he had the leaders of Europe fawning all over him.

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Monday, March 13th, 2017
8:23 am - On Daylight Savings Time
I napped several times yesterday, as my body absorbed the effects of "springing forward" -- that is, of losing an hour's sleep. I stayed in bed this morning until I was slept out, and so I think I'm over the worst of the effects of going on "Daylight Savings Time."

We used to do this at six-month intervals. We now "spring forward" on the second Sunday in March, and "fall back" to Standard time on the first Sunday in November, which means we spend more time on DST than on Standard time. So, why don't we just move all the time zones if people want to live on DST? Let's do it all year!

Or, here's an idea: Why don't we skip all this "springing forward" that everybody hates, and just "fall back" now and then? That way, we get an extra hour of sleep. That's the part everybody likes. If we "fell back" twice a year, it would be like a little mini-vacation, a bonus of an extra hour, like a paid holiday. And it wouldn't matter what time of year you did it, so we could pick a couple of days where everybody stays up late and comes into work bleary-eyed anyway, so how about "falling back" on New Year's Eve and Independence Day? That'd be nice.

Now, you can't live on borrowing forever (tell our government this). So, eventually you'd have to "spring forward" with a vengeance. But if we "fell back" twice a year, we could declare an Un-Leap Day every twelve years, where we just eliminate some day that we don't need. We already have all these Monday holidays, so I suggest eliminating a Monday in some ugly month like, say, February or November. We would go straight from Sunday to Tuesday, from (e.g.) February 5 to February 7, and pay off all those pleasant hours we borrowed without actually losing any sleep. (Or you could just skip every third February 29.)

I mean, if you've just got to keep messing with the time, at least make it so we don't all suffer from the lingering effects of "springing forward." It would be as close as we could come to having our cake and eating it, too. Write your Congressmen.

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Saturday, March 11th, 2017
8:13 am - So there I wuz . . .
My vividest dreams are often just before awaking. I had a doozy this morning.

I dreamt I was leaving someplace to go home. I drove down the street of a big city to find an on-ramp to the freeway. Then, I was driving at high speed down the freeway, with six lanes to choose from. Everything okay so far. Oh, some of the drivers on the street seemed to be going the wrong way, but I didn't have any trouble. And though my car seemed odd, somehow -- kind of full of junk -- I was driving it fine.

Then I realized that I was kneeling on the seat, facing backwards, with my foot extended behind me to reach the pedals and my hand on the wheel at my back. The junk was the stuff in the back seat. I was looking out the back window, driving 60 mph, changing lanes, just tooling along. But as soon as I realized I was backing up -- as soon as I realized my brain was reversing everything in order to drive backwards -- I couldn't do it any longer. Once I had to think about what I was doing, I started to oversteer. Trying to slow down, change lanes, and find an exit while driving backwards was frightening.

Of course, in real life, I don't think I could go 60 mph in reverse. Those things don't matter in dreams. But my real-life difficulty in backing up straight was certainly magnified in the dream scenario.

Some days, it's good to wake up and face a new day.

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Friday, March 10th, 2017
4:51 pm - By request -- recipe
Tammie Lawrence asked for this. It is my basic soda bread recipe. It is never failing. Soda bread has a grainy crumb. It sops up soups and stews wonderfully. Try it with cream cheese instead of butter sometime.

Irish Soda Bread

Combine the following:
3 cups AP flour,
1 tsp salt,
1.5 tsp baking powder,
1 tsp soda,
1 Tbsp brown sugar
I usually use a whisk to aerate this, rather than bothering with sifting. If I don't have that, I fluff with a fork or by hand. Whatever you do, it'll work.

Add 1.5 cups milk. Any kind of milk: whole milk, 2%, fresh/old, what have you. Buttermilk adds a distinct tang if you use that. For the purpose of making this bread, milk's milk.

Mix by hand until the dough just comes together. Don't overmix. If the batter is too soupy, add more flour and work it in until you can just handle it without it clinging to you. It'll feel like slightly sticky biscuit dough.

Pat together into a round, flat loaf. Bake on a greased cookie sheet at 350 degrees for about 35 minutes. To make more than one loaf, just multiply the ingredients.

Let cool completely before slicing.

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3:49 pm - By request -- recipe
Had a few inquiries on this, and a lot more longing looks. So, meet the meat from last night's Wapehani District Dinner:

Spice-Crusted Pork Tenderloin

There's a simple technique to this dish, but it tends to baffle or intimidate some people. The basic approach is to brine the meat, then cook it fast and hot. The details are merely details, and can be fiddled with.

Sunk in the briny deep

Pork tenderloins generally come two to a package. Each tenderloin is about a pound in weight. For last night's dinner, we bought two cases of tenderloins: 24 individual tenderloins in all.

Remove the tenderloins from the vacuum-sealed package. Rinse them off. Trim off the silverskin and any other tissue that is basically indigestible. Use a small, very sharp knife, like a boning knife or a filleting knife. Silverskin is not fat; it adds no flavor, and it doesn't break down when you chew it. Get rid of as much as you can, without sacrificing the meat.

Prepare a simple brine. My recipe says to combine 3/4 cup kosher salt, 3/4 cup sugar, and 1/8 tsp freshly ground pepper. Dissolve in 1 cup boiling water. Pour mixture into 1 gallon cold water. Submerge the tenderloin(s). Store in refrigerator for 6-12 hours.

This amount of brine will easily do four tenderloins. Meanwhile, Deanne has complained frequently when I do this that the meat is too salty. If you find it so, reduce the amount of salt. Likewise, I like a little extra pepper in my brine. For the 24 tenderloins we made, I made up two brining tubs with a dozen tenderloins apiece, each containing about 3 gallons of brine. Each brining tub's brine contained 1.5 cups salt, 1.5 cups sugar, and about 3/4 tsp pepper. I was very pleased with the result.

The purpose of the brine is not merely to season the meat, though it does that. It also saturates the tissues so that the meat will not dry out, even when subjected to very high heat. Remember, there is almost no fat on a tenderloin to render out and keep the meat moist. Cooking tenderloin by this technique without brining first will reduce the very best meat on the animal to a leather cinder.

Ay, there's the rub

When you are ready to actually cook the meat, preheat your oven to 450 degrees. Then prepare a dry rub. My rub consists of two parts: the whole spices and the powdered spices. For one tenderloin, start with
1 Tbsp mustard seed,
1 Tbsp cracked coriander seed,
1/2 Tbsp cumin seed,
1 Tbsp cracked juniper berries.
Put these in a dry skillet and toast lightly for best effect. This brings out all the essential oils in the little kernels. That said, if you're under the gun, as we were last night, just send everything through the spice blender and get on with it. Add these spices to
1 Tbsp ground coriander,
1 Tbsp garlic powder,
1 Tbsp ground mustard,
1 Tbsp cornstarch.
Whisk everything together in a bowl. If you have more than one tenderloin, increase spices proportionately. If there are other spices you favor, be creative.

Drain tenderloin(s). Pat dry with paper towel. Apply dry rub all over.

Nuke the pig

Heat 1-2 Tbsp oil (I prefer olive oil) in a skillet (I prefer cast iron). Brown tenderloin on all sides, about 3 minutes per side. Place skillet in 450 degree oven (or transfer meat to oven-going vessel -- be warned, this is messy, and you lose a lot of crust). Roast for 20 minutes.

Don't be intimidated if you don't have the right vessels. We had limited stove top acreage to deal with, and nowhere near enough skillets. Also, all six of our ovens have different size hot boxes, and every one cooks at a different speed. So we browned the tenderloins in two batches, using foil hotel pans and cookie sheets (depending on our oven sizes) which we placed directly over the gas flames. Then we shoved them into the ovens. Whatever you use, do not cover your roasting meat.

Also, be aware that 20 minutes is optimistic. Lots of factors go into this. I've found that 25-30 minutes is often needed, depending upon the oven (and how much meat is in there). It also depends on how done you want your meat. Be aware that your meat can sometimes be a little pink. With pork as it is produced today, that is not dangerous, but some people are put off by it. Preferred technique for checking doneness is a meat thermometer in the thickest part of the meat. A small incision will also work, but you risk losing moisture. The National Pork Board recommends removing pork from the heat when the internal temperature reaches 150 degrees. "Medium" doneness is considered 160 degrees, but carryover cooking will allow your meat to coast another ten degrees up while resting.

Resting your meat is essential! Let your tenderloin(s) stand at least 15 minutes before carving. If you don't, all the moisture will gush out and you will have dry meat. Cut on the bias into medallions.

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Saturday, March 4th, 2017
9:39 am - Something to think about
It's the first Saturday in Lent. I'm meditating on Bede's Death Song today:
For þam nedfere næni wyrþeþ
þances snotera, þonne him þearf sy
to gehicgenne ær his heonengange
hwæt his gaste godes oþþe yfeles
æfter deaþe heonon demed weorþe.
'Before setting forth on that inevitable journey, none is wiser than the man who considers—before his soul departs hence—what good or evil he has done, and what judgement his soul will receive after its passing.' (Modern translation by Leo Shirley-Price)

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Wednesday, March 1st, 2017
11:15 pm - Would I lie to you?
I was watching a British panel show called, Would I Lie To You? The various panelists read statements about themselves – some true, some false -- and try to convince the other team they’re telling the truth. Well, over 41 years of ministry, I’ve had a lot of experiences – good, bad, and just plain weird. I thought I would mine my memories and see what was there. Here are some three dozen statements about my life in ministry. How many of these things do you think I have actually done/had happen to me? (Answers below; no peeking!)

At one “take-in,” where I was to be introduced to my new parishioners, the DS failed to show up. Nobody had a key to the church, either, so we stood around in the parking lot.

One time, some kids in my youth group and I shorted out all the power to the entire Ichthus music festival.

I have conducted worship in a t-shirt that read, “Just Another Sexy Bald Guy.”

I have concelebrated Catholic mass with a priest. I don’t know if he knew I was a Protestant, but the other Catholics did and were utterly gobsmacked about it.

I was once on the Executive Committee of a big-time evangelistic crusade.

I have debated the head of the Freedom From Religion organization.

I have been attacked in a book published by Moody Press.

I saw a full-sized violin made of chocolate in a candymaker’s window; I was going to call the attention of the youth with me to this, but decided to walk on and say nothing when I saw the life-sized woman’s breasts made of chocolate next to the violin.

I have set up promotional displays at Black Expo in Indianapolis.

I have been sexually harassed by a nun.

I was once asked to exorcize a ghost.

I have gotten lost trying to find my way from one church to another on a Sunday morning.

One time when our organist fainted at the organ, I told the lay leader after the service to remember to count the paramedics who came in that day’s attendance.

I wrote and produced a TV ad featuring the governor of Indiana.

The youngest person I ever arranged to ever preach in my place on a Sunday morning was a 9-year-old girl.

One time at a funeral, I said we were there “to condemn [the deceased] to the care of God,” rather than “commend.”

I have repaired a pipe organ using rope and basic Boy Scout knots.

I have written extensively on fantasy role-playing games (FRPGs) from a clergy perspective.

I have ridden a camel.

My lay leader – a sweet man who had been a sergeant in Vietnam – was standing up front with a flat of begonias on Mother’s Day, puzzled by how to proceed in a situation he had never been in before. Finally, he said, “All right, all you mothers come up here and get these flowers.” I nearly fell off my chair.

I have published a book of music and worship resources.

We qualified for government cheese back when our church was used for commodities distribution.

Deanne and I once designed our own parsonage, which was built by the church I was pastoring.

I have Tourette’s Syndrome, which makes doing ministry more difficult at times.

I was visiting an old lady in the nursing home; I found her petting an African wildcat on her bed.

I once did a funeral on 30 minutes’ notice for a family I had never met before.

I was almost bitten by a crocodile on a mission trip.

I was out with a group of Venturers and we were looking in a taxidermist’s shop window; when the cat napping in the corner of the window moved, I almost freaked out.

In one wedding, the couple left the altar before the ceremony was finished.

I don’t do youth lock-ins at the church any more since the time when one youth leaped from the balcony in the sanctuary in a game of tag.

During VBS one year, I lowered every child off the roof of the church’s porte cochere using rope tied in an emergency chest hitch.

My cat came to church one summer day and ran across the front of the sanctuary during worship.

I was looking out over the sanctuary one day, and saw an old guy who had come in late. He wanted to enter the back pew, but there were people on both ends, so he just climbed over the back of it. No one else saw it but me.

I have sung “Father Abraham” – with all the motions – while playing euchre in a bar at a Catholic seminary.

I have paid pastoral calls on parishioners on picket duty.

I have had both hypothermia and heat exhaustion – but not at the same time.

Answers: They’re all true. You can’t make this stuff up.

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Monday, February 27th, 2017
12:32 pm - Prior claim
This is the reason I can't get anything done today. Somebody needs me.

What are you lookin' at?

What are you lookin' at?
Hera has staked her claim.

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Sunday, February 26th, 2017
12:12 pm - The Wordsmith's Forge
My newsletter column for March

‘The time has come,’ the Walrus said,
‘To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax -
Of cabbages — and kings -
And why the sea is boiling hot -
And whether pigs have wings.’
— Lewis Carroll, “The Walrus and the Carpenter”
The very first sermon I ever preached was in the fall of 1974. I had recently announced my call to the ministry in the church we had joined. I was soon asked to speak to the boys and girls in children’s church, which was conducted in the chapel of Terre Haute First UMC. In my talk to them, I attempted to explain that even if, per impossibile, God were not all-powerful, he would still deserve our worship because he is all-good. And then, to make the point, I tossed off the phrase, “And if pigs had wings, we’d all eat flying pork.” Later that day, little Tommy Clayton was asked by his parents what Art had said in children’s church, and all Tommy could remember was that one odd phrase.

And now, I am looking ahead to my last sermon. Oh, it probably won’t be the last time I ever preach, but it will be the last sermon I preach under full-time appointment; certainly, the last sermon I preach as your pastor. I’m thinking about calling it “The Last Word.”

For, as you are probably aware by now, I announced my impending retirement earlier this month. I mentioned it off-handedly as part of an announcement about our Venturers’ trip to Switzerland. Journalists call that “burying the lede.” It has caused a bit of confusion, I hear. But I really didn’t want to kill the service stone-dead with a great big stopper on what should be a day of celebration.

There is still the greater part of five months of ministry to share with you before the day comes for me to lay down my responsibilities. That’s a long time to say good-bye. There’s time to get some important things done before then. Still, the time will come, and soon enough. There will be some things I will need to say to you, and things you will need to say to me, and I want to be open to that: words of appreciation, of forgiveness, of love. But if I don’t get everything said to you that I wish, or you don’t get everything said to me that you wish, then let these lines of Art Garfunkel say this for us both:
But the ending always comes at last
endings always come too fast,
they come too fast, but they pass too slow,
I love you and that’s all I know.

Love and prayers,

— Art Collins

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6:57 am - Preparing for Annual Conference
So, I thought I'd have a t-shirt made to wear at Annual Conference this year. On one side, in a posterboard kind of font, I'd have the words
On the other side, I would have a statement or slogan relating to that status. Here are the various statements I've been considering:
Getting out
while the getting
is good.

Ask me what
I really think.

I have kept
the faith.

The best is
yet to be.

A priest forever
after the order
of Melchizedek.

Free at last,
free at last.

Ask me about
my grandchildren.

No more meetings.
No more reports.
Now, I can do ministry!

let no man trouble me,
for I bear in my body
the marks of the Lord Jesus.

Your complaint
has been referred
to a higher authority.
He doesn’t care, either.
Then it occurred to me that I could print these up as iron-on transfers. We could offer them to people at Annual Conference for a small donation to one of the Pathfinder's causes: the NAUMS Bible Fund; the Larry Richert Fund for high adventure scholarships; the Congo Scouting Ministry Fund.

We have a large number of people retiring this year, plus a lot of retirees from previous years who attend Conference. Ya think these would be popular?

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Thursday, February 23rd, 2017
7:59 pm - Just sayin'
I originally posted this to my FB page on January 25:
In these last few months, I've developed a few personal principles about discussing hot-button issues on social media.

1. I don't comment on posts by strangers very often. It is not my duty to correct everyone on the internet I disagree with. There are way too many trolls out there as it is.

2. That means I'm mostly commenting on things said by people I already know and value. And even there, I consider whether the relationship I have with that person could stand up to a robust discussion. If what I have to say might merely offend or hurt that person, I tread carefully and respond patiently.

3. If it's your timeline or home page or original post, you get the last word. That's not me admitting you're right, that's me respecting your space.

4. Finally, when certain people enter the discussion, it's time to leave. Life is too short to spend it butting heads with buttheads.

I spent the time this evening looking it up in order to remind myself of my own rules, for some people are sorely trying my patience.

I only rarely seek to be "friends" with anybody on social media. The people on my friends list are therefore mostly there because they asked me to have that relationship. So, while I respect their opinions and leave them to enjoy them, mostly, I just want to say that I am really sick and tired of being called a racist, unchristian, etc. And I also want to say that there is great house-cleaning coming in the not-too-distant future.

I now return you to your daily outrage.

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Monday, February 20th, 2017
11:01 pm - Christ and the Philosophers, Part III
And finally . . .

Christ and the Philosophers: the Beautiful

1 Samuel 16:1-13

I’ve been preaching a little series of sermons on “Christ and the Philosophers” – meaning people like you and me. For all of us wrestle as mightily as any academic over the daily questions of what is the good, the true, and the beautiful – and these are the great questions of philosophy. So I thought I’d talk about each of these.

Finding what the Bible has to say about what is good and what is true is fairly easy to do – but it’s a lot dicier when it comes to the Bible’s view on beauty. Perhaps it is because of the commandment to make no graven images that worked upon the ancient Israelites, to make them less likely to produce works of beauty or to comment on what makes something beautiful. I mean, they wore makeup and scent, as all peoples of the ancient Near East did – and occasionally we get reference to some ruler’s inventory of fabulous gowns. But we have almost no portraiture, no discussion of canons of proportion, in the Scriptures.

There are occasional descriptions of furniture and so on for the tabernacle – and later the temple – but the magnificence of all the stuff that went into God’s dwelling sometimes sounds like an inventory of Scrooge McDuck’s money bin: a laundry list of fabulous doo-dads made of gold, and another list of fabulous doo-dads made of silver, or of bronze. There’s no distinctive set of values for buildings or furnishings that typify the people of Israel.

Now, the ancient Egyptians had a distinctive set of standards for physical beauty, and they’d been using them to portray men and women for centuries by the time of David and Solomon. And by the time the exiles of Judah returned from Babylon, Classical Greek civilization was turning out its magnificent statuary, celebrating their ideal of human beauty. Likewise, both Egyptians and Greeks developed distinctive styles of architecture and decoration. The Greeks even discussed the mathematics of proportion that went into making a building beautiful. Meanwhile, the Bible is often downright negative about standards of physical beauty.

In the story we just read, Samuel is directed to the family of Jesse of Bethlehem to anoint a replacement for King Saul. Now, Samuel had an idea of what a king should look like; after all, he’d picked Saul out. Saul son of Kish was the tallest man in Israel. There was a king for you! Except Saul was a failure as a ruler, and God had rejected him.

Anyway, when Jesse assembles his seven sons, Samuel looks at the first one, Eliab, and he’s impressed. This guy looks like a king! Handsome, tall, imposing – just like Saul! And the Lord says No. In fact, what he says is, "Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; the for Lord sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart."

God does not look upon the outward appearance; God looks upon, and judges, the heart. This idea is repeated several times in the Scriptures. In Proverbs, we are told that beauty is fleeting and deceptive, but a woman who fears the Lord is worth having! And let us not forget Isaiah’s prophecy of the Messiah, the suffering servant:
[H]e had no form or comeliness that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him . . .
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
I think the message is pretty clear: beauty of character is what God and the Bible are interested in, not beauty of appearance. The Lord looks upon the heart. So, there’s a kind of interiority to Biblical standards of beauty, of looking within rather than looking at surfaces. And this is carried on by the Christian Church, when it starts producing religious art and religious buildings later on.

In a traditional Christian icon or statue of a saint, or in stained glass there is very little attempt to portray the person depicted as he or she actually was. Saints are typically shown with high foreheads (because it’s a symbol of their great wisdom), and with flowing, well-groomed beards (an image of venerable age). They are shown wearing the appropriate clothing and bearing the appropriate symbols of the time the picture was made. No attempt is made to present them in historically accurate clothing, for instance.

In fact, the most realistic thing about traditional pictures of the saints are the animals some of them are associated with. St. Cuthbert always looks like your standard holy man of the middle ages, rather than one of the 7th Century – but the otters at his feet are really well-pictured otters. St. Hubert (patron saint of hunters) is usually depicted as a bishop of the 14th or 15th Century, rather than as a nobleman of the 8th Century (when he lived) – but his stag always looks like one you’d like to get a shot at.

The Renaissance did a better job of presenting saints as real people, but it wasn’t until the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in the 19th Century that anybody ever made a picture of anyone like Jesus in an entirely natural, historically accurate way. And it shocked people: they thought it was sacrilegious.

Likewise, when the Church began designing buildings exclusively for public worship, they began encoding the space symbolically – wtih cross-shaped churches and eight-sided baptisteries (for the eighth day of creation, that is, the resurrection), and with colored hangings and so on that communicated the observance of sacred time. Even in plainer times, such as when the Puritans built their meeting-houses, they attempted to present the meaning of their worship in the things they built to house their worship.

I used to say, "Show me your sacred space, and I will tell you what you really believe." But then, what are we to make of some of today's churches - they call them “worship centers” or some such – which are bare as a storage closet, beset with gantries of exposed lights and all kinds of cables taped to the floor, with risers that my old junior high school would call rickety. I've walked into these churches at times, and I’ve looked at the space around me and found myself saying, “This is the ugliest doggone room I’ve ever been in, and we’re going to worship God here just to show that we can.”

Just because God looks on the heart doesn’t mean that he has no use for beauty. Indeed, the Psalms are full of images of astounding beauty. The ancient Israelites had a real feel for the beauty of nature, and their poetry is as full of these beautiful images as anything from English or Russian nature-poets. But again, there is this focus upon the meaning of this beauty.
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
– knowledge of the Lord, and of his law. The beauty of the creation is supposed to draw you to praise its creator. The appearance of a person is secondary to what is in that person’s heart. The heart is what counts.

Now, this lesson is often given to young people by their parents, when those same young people are at that stage when they are most obsessed by surfaces – by the right clothes, and the right hairstyle, and the right accessories, with jewelry and tattoos and designer labels and phones and cars, and so on. And young people do not believe their parents when they tell them this. They think they’re just trying to make them feel better, whereas they know that if they could just deck themselves out the way the cool kids do, why, then, they’d be beautiful, too.

Sadly, it doesn’t work that way. For despite what the entertainers and advertisers will tell you, all the ”right” accoutrements cannot make you beautiful. And tucking this body part in, or pushing that one out, or decorating yourself with whatever is hip or startling is a waste of time. I have occasionally told young people who had given me their confidence that the body parts they think so important are not, in fact, the body parts that have the most impact upon physical beauty. In fact, the two most import body parts in determining physical beauty may surprise you. And I’ll just take a little detour here to note them as a public service – no extra charge.

The first body part that determines physical beauty in all cultures and across the centuries is – your spine. For if you carry yourself properly, so that all your parts hang from your head and shoulders, they will all arrange themselves to their best advantage. No amount of cool clothes or makeup or tattoos or whatever can cover up what is out of place, nor does anything look good on a person who is slouching.

The other essential body part that determines phyical beauty is your mouth – specifically, your smile. For a person who is smiling enlarges one’s eyes and sets one’s face alight – and people are drawn to the face of a smiling person, and all that other stuff becomes of lesser importance. I told Deanne that I fell in love with her for her smile. She didn’t smile much when we first met. Life had been hard on her; but oh, when she did: my heart just flipped over – even before I really knew her well. Meanwhile, a scowling person is just pug-ugly, no matter how much makeup one is wearing or what kind of car one is driving. Ug-lee.

If all this sounds like I’m being more critical toward girls than boys, I should probably note that the third most important thing (beauty-wise) is not a body part at all, but just basic hygiene. And though boys may be less fashion-conscious than girls, but they also sometimes need to be told more directly about the virtues of soap.

So, does this mean that fashion is irrelevant? Well, no. Standards of beauty come and go, and fashion is ever changing, for, as Amanda Halley, the fashion historian says, “fashion is not an island, it’s a response” – a response to things going on in society and how people feel about them. But if the Bible is any guide, we ought to seek to make our inner self and our outer appearance reflect each other. And young people who feel awkward and insecure, who maybe don’t like themselves very much right now, will tend to slouch and scowl, but as they come to feel better about themselves on the inside, that will translate to confidence on the outside, and that changes how we present ourselves to others.

More importantly, the person who does good things, who puts others first, who is in the right relationship with God, who is kind and patient, will do things for and with others that are themselves beautiful, even if their personal appearance is not. And what people will remember them for are the things they saw them do – for that reveals their character far better than their mere appearance.

“Handsome is as handsome does,” as they say. The Christian standard for beauty is an inner standard. So we should learn to value what makes us beautiful on the inside and cultivate that. And the way to do that is to make ourselves as mirrors to reflect the character of our Savior in all we do, in all we say, and in all we make.

And may it be so.

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9:14 pm - Christ and the Philosophers, Part II
Christ and the Philosophers: the True

John 18:28-38a

The title of this little series of sermons is “Christ and the Philosophers” – meaning, not the big names in Philosophy, such as Plato, or Kant, or Descartes, but, well – you and me. We are all philosophers, because all of us every day think and act on the great philosophical questions, namely: what is the Good, the True, and the Beautiful? And while Christianity has no official philosophy – there are Idealist Christians and Realist Christians and Existentialist Christians and what-not; nevertheless, the Bible has a fair amount to say about what constitutes the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

Which brings us to the story of Jesus before Pilate. The High Priest Caiaphas & Co. have presented the Roman Governor with a ready-made sentence of death against Jesus of Nazareth, based upon a mixed bag of charges that Pilate can’t make heads or tails of. So Pilate turns to the prisoner, Jesus, to ask if he’s really claiming to be some sort of king – which would make him guilty of rebellion or sedition or something.

Jesus then asks Pilate if he's making the accusation or if he’s just repeating what he’s been told. Pilate says, “Am I a Jew?” meaning, "How do you expect me to understand all this? Your own people have asked for the death penalty. What did you do?"

Jesus realizes that Pilate is sincerely asking, so he tells him what he has refused to ever say to the likes of Caiaphas: “My kingship is not of this world,” and I’m no threat to Rome. Pilate asks then, “So you are a king?” And Jesus responds, “You call me that. I say that I came into the world as a witness to the truth.” To which Pilate responds, Phfft -- “What is truth?”

You gotta understand that for Pilate – and for many, many other people in this world, truth is whatever lets you keep your job – or your head. And he is trying, as best he can, to get Jesus to say something that will allow him to let Jesus off – but Jesus won’t say the magic words. Jesus won’t go along to get along. He has his own understanding of what is true, and he is willing to die rather than buy into what everyone else has agreed to call true. In the end, Pilate and Jesus just wind up talking past each other – but we don’t have to do the same.

So, what is truth? Well, first of all, truth is that which conforms to the facts, to reality. It’s the opposite of error, but also the opposite of fantasy. “Just the facts, ma’am,” as Joe Friday would say. If we’re talking about history, then truth is wie es wirklich war – the way it really happened. And if we’re talking about religion . . . Or if we’re talking about the Bible . . .

Is the Bible true? Every bit of it? Are some things true in one sense and some true in another? What are we to make of all the miracles in the Bible? How do we reconcile what the Bible says with what we learn via the Scientific Method? Oh, these are deep waters, indeed. And I have always appreciated J.R.R. Tolkiens’s epilogue to his great essay, “On Fairy-Stories,” where he says,
The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. . . . But this story has entered History and the primary world . . . There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. . . . To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.
Just to be clear: I believe that the story is true. I note especially that the New Testament is the best attested document of antiquity, and that the persons and events and customs mentioned in it are all according to Hoyle, and that the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is as provable as any miracle ever could be. Being a Gentile, I’ll take the Old Testament on Jesus’s word and give it a presumption of truth, and then investigate its odd corners to see what’s in it. And there, too, I find all sorts of confirmations of its testimony.

But when Tolkien talked about “sceptical men” accepting the Gospel story as “true on its own merits,” he was saying something important. I don’t spend a lot of time preaching on the evidence for our faith, because, generally speaking, you have to really be open to the evidence for the evidence to convince you. The professional skeptics – the atheists, science-mongers, and modernists - are all like W.C. Fields. Fields was reading the Bible one day, and an astonished friend asked him what he was doing. “Looking for loopholes,” is what he said.

"Looking for loopholes" – and the atheists, science-mongers, and modernists are not alone in that. There are also all the progressive Christian leaders, who set out to explain Christianity and the Bible and in trying to make it acceptable to today’s taste, wind up explaining it away. Meanwhile, there are other people, who believe in the Bible, but who think that means you gotta believe their crazy and distorted interpretations of it – that if their weirdness ain’t so, then you can’t trust God’s word. Which is bunk.

There’s plenty of evidence, if evidence is really what you’re looking for. If you really want to know the truth, then the Holy Spirit will lead you to it – and you will find Jesus there when you find what is true. Yes. It really happened. He really did what he did, and he meant what he said.

And I’ll tell you another thing Jesus said. When he was arguing with the Pharisees, he said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” But here, truth is something more than just facts, more than just the way it really happened. Truth is not merely the opposite of fantasy – it is also the opposite of lies. And so many, many people are chained up in a prison of lies.

Sometimes, lies can take over a whole society, such as the old Soviet Union, where everybody had to say what everybody knew wasn’t true, so that they wouldn’t be punished for contradicting the State. The USSR even published falsified maps for their own people. There were whole cities that didn’t officially exist – you couldn't find 'em on a map, even if you lived there. People earned doctorates in academic fields, writing dissertations on subjects that everybody knew was total horsefeathers.

But you don’t have to live in a prison-state like the Soviet Union to suffer in a dungeon of lies. There are all kinds of people who live in the prison of their own heads – unable to get away from the lies that they hear over and over – about themselves:
You’re no good.
It’s your fault.
You know what people are saying, don’t you?
How could you?
What makes you think anybody would love you?
What makes you think God would forgive you?
Sometimes, these lies come from others – from what we heard as children or even from our current relationships – and sometimes they come from what we tell ourselves:
I’m so ugly.
So fat.
I screw up everything.
I wish I were anything but what I am.
Yes, and sometimes the lies come from pop culture, that imprisons us within certain categories that we must fit within – or else we forfeit our coolness, our belonging, our identity:
You don’t wanna be one of THOSE people, do ya?
Ultimately, of course, we all find ourselves prisoners of sin – our own sin – and we spend enormous effort on self-justification, on excusing ourselves even as we condemn ourselves, telling ourselves comfortable lies to get through another night of alienation and despair.

Well, to know the truth is to refuse the lies we tell ourselves – as well as the lies we hear from others. To know the truth is to see with God’s eyes: to see the world with God’s eyes, and to know the deceit and the folly of it; and to see ourselves with God’s eyes, too, to see not a failure or a horror but a precious child that Jesus died for – a son or daughter to be raised to fulfill the beauty that he already sees in you.

Jesus told the Pharisees he was the true bread that came down from heaven, that before Abraham was, I am. And to be in the right relationship with him is to be restored to freedom, indeed. It means to be forgiven, to be at peace, to be able once again to value things properly, including yourself. Oh, whom the Son of God sets free is free, indeed – that’s another thing Jesus said. And you can depend on it – because he said it.

In Revelation 19, John says,
Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! He who sat upon it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems; and he has a name inscribed which no one knows but himself. He is clad in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God.
Jesus is called Faithful and True – and in this case, “true” means primarily, “dependable, the one who keeps his promises.” As ol’ Horton the Elephant put it, “I meant what I said and I said what I meant. An elephant’s faithful one hundred percent.”

You can count on Jesus. People will disappoint you – even those who mean you well. Not everyone is two-faced or crazy or manipulative. There are many wonderful people in the world, and you are greatly loved by some of them, I’m sure. But they can’t always be there for you – sometimes through no fault of their own. I mean, people die, people move away, people sometimes fail to notice things or get busy with other stuff. And they can’t “fix” you – nor “fulfill” you, anyway – so depending upon people is an iffy thing.

Depending on things – on the right circumstances, on a job or the results of an election or not getting sick or making a deadline or having a nice house – will disappoint you, too. Satisfaction is not to be found in things. And you’ll find you can’t keep things, anyway.

Depending on yourself isn’t the answer, either. Your own power is just not enough. All of us have too much need and not enough strength, not enough wisdom, not enough time. But Jesus never fails – and he will not fail you.

He will be there when other people cannot. He will not fail you as things inevitably must. He has the power you lack. You can depend on him: he’s the dependable sort.

“What is truth?” I’ve looked at the evidence, and I believe the Gospel is true. By the grace of God, I have looked upon the world – and upon myself – with God’s eyes, and I am not bound in the prison of lies any more. And I know that my Redeemer lives, and I’m trusting in his faithfulness – in him who is called Faithful and True.

“What is truth?” Jesus is truth. His love for you is truth. His faithfulness is truth. And don’t let anybody ever tell you different.


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4:18 pm - Christ and the Philosophers, Part I
I just published the last of this sermon series, by request. (Honest!) So, I thought it might be of interest to someone to see the whole four-part series. Here is the first sermon, then.

Christ and the Philosophers: the Good

Mark 10:17-31

Years ago, when my daughter, Anna, was in high school, she asked me to come talk to one of her school clubs about Philosophy and Religion. I prepared a talk and delivered it – and I came across the handout for that talk recently while cleaning out a closet. One of the major points I made in that talk given to high school youth was that everybody thinks philosophically. That doesn’t mean that everyone is wise – or even consistent in their logic – but the kinds of questions philosophy asks, using ten-dollar words, are the kinds of questions everybody asks, all day long.

Essentially, philosophy asks three questions: what is the Good? What is the True? And what is the Beautiful? The Good, the True, and the Beautiful (not the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly – that’s an old Clint Eastwood film): Determining the good, the true, and the beautiful is ordinary stuff. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to determine any of those things, but it’s not something that takes an advanced degree. We do it from our earliest years.

“That’s just not right.” “That was very kind.” “Five Guys makes the best fries.” What is The Good? Or, in the words of a famous tabloid headline: "Doctors Discover: CHOCOLATE CAN CURE ANTHING!” What is The True? And then – we can start talking about art and fashion and landscapes and tattoos, and the question “What is The Beautiful?” will start an argument in five seconds flat. Life is full of instances where you are asked to make a determination between good and bad, between true and false, between beautiful and ugly – and we all do.

You could go so far as the say that Philosophy is the Operating System of the Mind. In order to run your brain, you must think in these categories. Meanwhile, Religion is merely an App – an add-on, a program you can run. And you can so configure your soul that everything goes through the Religion App; indeed, we recommend that you do. That’s the meaning of WWJD, that you see on all those little bracelets – not to mention Paul’s admonition that whatsoever you do, do it all to the glory of God. But there are plenty of people who only check their Religion App once in a while, and others who basically never use it - while everybody uses Philosophy, because everybody is constantly making one kind of choice or another. And choices – distinctions – value judgments – is what Philosophy is all about.

Now, there is no Official Christian Philosophy. People with all sorts of opinions and organizing principles become Christians; but still, the Bible and Church tradition has some things to say about how we should go about making the important choices life presents us with. And so, today, I want to talk about the first of those questions: What is The Good?
And as [Jesus] was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" And Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: 'Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.'" And he said to him, "Teacher, all these I have observed from my youth."
Y’know, there’s a whole lot going on in that little interchange – more than we usually realize. Let’s start with the matter of Ethics. One of the major approaches to talking about the Good is to talk about Ethics: What is good behavior vs. bad behavior: What is fair, what is just, what is humane? When the rich young man asks him how to qualify for eternal life, Jesus mentions the commandments: Everybody knows the commandments; do those.

Now, when you get right down to it, an awful lot of people think that the commandments are just arbitrary. God makes up the rules just because he can, and then threatens people with hell and damnation if they step over his lines. And people who think that way often wind up arguing with the commandments, thinking, Surely God isn’t like that. As Charles II – he of the many mistresses – put it, “Surely God will never damn a man for allowing himself a little pleasure.” But if you listen to people argue about things when they don’t work out the way they want, you’ll notice an interesting thing: They’ll say: “that’s unfair!” And they expect to you to agree with them.

Amazing. Even people who claim that God – or Man – or Society – just makes up the Rules (in order to make up their own) will howl about how unfair some outcome is. And they expect to convince you, because after all, it’s not just that they wanted it to turn out their way – they expect you to know that it should have turned out their way. “You know the commandments” – don’t you?

The plain fact is, whatever one says one believes, everybody acts as if the standards of right and wrong – of fair vs. unfair – are not just my standards or your standards, but everybody’s standards; that, in fact, there is an authoritative code of the Good which exists outside all human society, and to which all humans are accountable. Otherwise, claiming “that’s unfair!” and expecting you to care, much less do anything about it, makes no sense.

And what do Christians believe? We believe that the definition of Good starts with the God of the Bible, who is an ethical God. “No one is good but God alone,” says Jesus. And so the Rules are not just made up: they reflect God’s nature, and they’re the same for everybody, and everybody is accountable to – God? Yes, God – for obeying them. Or else your complaint about unfairness, or injustice, or somebody’s evil behavior, is just a waste of breath.

But wait! There’s more! Everyone acts as if there’s a universal code of Good, and everyone acts as if it’s universally known, but the odd thing is, Nobody manages to obey it. We expect them to, but they don’t. For that matter, while we’re complaining about the outrage that’s been done to us, we act as if we know the code of the Good, and that we at least live up to its demands - when in fact, if we’re honest, we have to admit that we do no such thing.

We are all alike guilty of the very same acts we complain about when done to us. Which is a very odd thing. Cats never fail to live up to the ideals of cat-ness. Cows are never known to disappoint other cows in their behavior. Elephants never lose a night’s sleep worrying over whether they did the right thing today. But human beings, despite our complaints about others, find it impossible to live up to even the most minimal standards ourselves – even those accepted by ourselves beforehand. Why, just keeping a diet going more than a day is a severe trial for us, let alone treating others as we should wish to be treated.

This universal failure to live up to our own acknowledged standards is called sin – and as G.K. Chesterton pointed out, it’s as common as potatoes. We all do it. Every one of us, the rich young man who told Jesus he had kept all the commandments from his youth notwithstanding. And we didn’t just start falling short. We have always fallen short. We have an inborn tendency to not quite get it right. Which is why G.K. Chesterton, again, said that Original Sin was the only dogma of Christianity which could actually be proved.

So, the situation we find ourselves in, is that we have an inborn sense that there is a right and a wrong, and we are responsible for doing the one and avoiding the other, but none of us manages to do so. And if the definition of the Good comes from God, who is the Good, then we find ourselves on the outs with him, and that affects how our lives turn out now – and how they will turn out hereafter, yea, even eternally. Which is why we are told that we need to repent, to turn away from the bad, and embrace the good.

And, we are told that Jesus has sacrificed himself for us, dying on the cross in order to pay for all our misdeeds, to take away our reproach before God and make it possible for us to have a right relationship with God – and therefore, the Good -- again. This is why we say that Jesus makes us right with God. He gives effect to our repentance, so that the evil we have done can be repaired, not merely rejected.

Back again to Jesus and the rich young man for a moment: And Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone." “Are you calling me God?” There’s a challenge there. For there’s another angle to the Good. If God is the Good, then he communicates goodness to his creation.

Being is an essential property of God, and he causes the universe to Be. Being is better than Not-being. God is Life. He breathed into Man and he became a living soul. Being alive is better than being dead. God is Spirit. “And where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” Being free is better than being a slave. God is Love. God is Joy. God is Glory. Everything we could desire in this life derives its goodness from its imitation of God.

The Good is not only good actions: it is also things that are Good to have. And so when those political philosophers who created our country said “that we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” they were saying just what I’ve been saying here. We desire not only to be good, but to possess the good, to take it into our souls and enjoy it.

Now, when Jesus died for our sins, he made it possible for us to be reconciled to God, to be (as they say) justified – to be righteous. But it is only when he rose from the dead that he could communicate to us the good things that we most desire, "for Christ being risen from the dead, will never die again" – and the life he now has, he shares with those who have repented of their sin and turned to him. He communicates the Goodness of God to us, he breathes into us the new life – the eternal life – which makes all good things possible.

"Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" What must I do in order to have the Good: the abundant life, the freedom of the soul, the hope of glory? Well, do all the right things, sure – but then, “come, follow me.”

You know, if you only open up your Religion App once in a while, all the talk of commandments and salvation and Jesus and the cross and mysteries and so on can look pretty confusing – which is why a lot of folks don’t open it very often. They just keep muddling through on their own – even though things never quite work out like they think they’re supposed to. But then, what can you do?

But for those who will turn their lives over to Jesus – for those who will expand their Religion App into a new Operating System for their souls – then all this makes perfect sense. It’s not about satisfying arbitrary demands, or looking for the get-out-of-hell-free card, or trying to wheedle someone into letting you keep your pet sins in the kingdom of heaven. We have found the Good – for we have found God - in Jesus Christ. And he has unsnarled the whole tangle of our wrongs, forgiven them, wiped them out, and made us new again, clean and right before God.

And he has filled us with himself, and so we find ourselves experiencing the Good – really experiencing it – fresh from the hands of the Good himself. He has promised to give us abundant life – indeed, eternal life – and so he has.

Blessed be his Name for ever. Amen.

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Sunday, February 19th, 2017
2:53 pm - By request -- today's sermon
Christ and the Philosophers: Through Darkest Zeitgeistheim

Colossians 2:8-23

To conclude my little series of sermons on Christ and the Philosophers, I’m stealing the title of this sermon from a book by C.S. Lewis called The Pilgrim’s Regress, which has a chapter called “Through Darkest Zeitgeistheim."

Der Zeitgeist is a German expression meaning “the Spirit of the Age.” It's the way everybody thinks nowadays, that which is unquestioned, the ideas that surround us like the air we breathe, and like the air we breathe, taken for granted until challenged – and then stiffly defended. So, Zeitgeistheim would be the perilous land where if you think differently about things, you will be seen as backward, as not-with-it, or as dangerous – a public menace. And Christianity is always falling afoul of the Spirit of whatever Age it finds itself in.

Anyway, I’ve been talking about the good, the true, and the beautiful in this series, and those ideas can be expressed in many ways, and combined in many concrete forms – too many for me to go through, one by one. But there is one combination of ideas that you find everywhere these days, and I want to say something about it.

When I was in grad school, I was taking a course in School and Society – a sociology course – and the professor posed two questions to the class. The first was, Is society best understood as being made up of Individuals – or Groups? In other words, which is more fundamental to understanding how society works? And the second question was, Are people primarily consensual or conflictual? That is, are they more prone to cooperation or to competition?

Now, how you describe society and its workings depends on how you answer these two questions. In sociology, these answers – these assumptions – precede all other theory. And there are various ways in which you can combine these elements to explain society. The dominant theory in today’s world – which you will find everywhere – is that groups are the primary forms of identity in society, not individuals, and that all groups are in competition with each other for the resources of society. This is called Conflict Theory.

That means that you can explain society by talking about sex, race, social class, age cohort, nationality, culture, religion, and so on, rather than talking about individuals, who derive their identities more from their group membership than from anything unique to themselves. And all these groups – these different categories - are in perpetual conflict over whatever society has to offer. So men and women are in conflict with each other, and races are in conflict with each other, and the rich are in conflict with the poor, the young with the old, and so on. And the resources of society that these groups compete with each other for are, of course, things like wealth, material possessions, jobs, political power – but also symbols, ideas, words, which acquire their meaning by their being “captured” by some group or another.

This means that all men oppress all women, that all whites oppress all people of color, that all rich people oppress all poor people, and rich nations oppress poor nations. Oh yeah, also, straights oppress gays, the old oppress the young, Christians oppress everybody else, yada yada yada, yackety schmackety. And it means that there is no such thing as objectivity, no “truth” that transcends the struggle for dominance. There is only my truth vs. your truth, and if I can get you to use my words to describe our situation, then that means I’m more likely to win, and my winning – my group's winning – is what defines what is true – and what is good – and what is beautiful. At this point sociology becomes expressible as philosophy, you see. It can also be expressed as political science, where we call this same idea Neo-Marxism.

And from Marxism comes the idea of “false consciousness,” that a person who reaches out to another across the battle lines of group identity to try to get along, or see things in a common frame of reference, is a dupe or a fool – and is betraying one’s own group, which is the only true evil there is. No real compromise is possible between those from different groups. No agreement can stand between them; any seeming agreement is only a tactical truce, a pause to gather strength for the next assault.

Have your eyes started to glaze over yet? Hang, on, there’s a point to this.

So the professor in my long-ago class explained Critical Theory to us, as well as all the other permutations of sociology – and it seemed as though we were merely playing with counters. I thought, this is all interesting stuff, but nobody who was smart enough to understand it would ever use it to draw battle lines with others, surely. I mean, yeah, the angry and the blind, the people who fight for causes they’ve never examined, they might treat people from other groups as “the enemy,” but surely not those who could see it was merely a theoretical construct. Right?

Well, those were the days of the School Reform Movement, and there were lots of interesting books being written that didn’t reflect the same ol’, same ol’ in the field of education. People who had spent their lives in the field of public education were not happy to have so many “outsiders” weighing in on their province. And I was reading one of these books one day in the faculty lounge, trying to see what the fuss was all about, when my sociology professor came up and asked me what I was reading.

I told him, and he made a scoffing reference. I said, You know, I don’t think people are paying attention – they’re just blindly picking sides – ‘cause there’s some interesting stuff in here. The professor wandered off without replying; but from that day, our cordial relationship ceased to exist. He cut me in the hallway, he ignored me in conversation – unless we were in the classroom, I no longer existed.

I was shocked! “These guys really mean it!” You see, I had read one of “those books.” I was revealed as being on the Other Side. I could no longer be included, even socially, among Our Kind of People. It rocked me to my core – not only because I had lost someone I had considered a friend, but because it suddenly invalidated one of my long-held hopes.

For I had always believed that if I were just smart enough, and learnéd enough, and articulate enough, I should be able to communicate with even the most hostile person and between us we would be able to find some kind of common ground, from which we could find a way to live together. And I nourished the hope that I could also find a way to witness to Christ so that the other person could see what I saw in Jesus.

But if some of those I was trying to communicate with didn’t actually believe that communication was possible, or desirable – that you had to first decide whose side you were on before you had anything to say to each other – then I had been on a fool’s errand. And I remember thinking, you can’t reason with these people; reason is, for them, merely one of the resources of society they are seeking to capture! They believe in the conflict, in the goodness of the conflict. They cannot understand you because they will not understand you.

And then I realized it wasn’t just in sociology or philosophy or political science that I was encountering this. It was in every academic field, it was in the way celebrities talked, in the way the news was reported. And it was even in the field of religion, for there were those, even in our own denomination, who were arguing that we should not attempt to convert people from other cultures to our faith in Christ, since Christianity was a “Western” or “European” religion (which would have surprised St. Paul). So for instance, The cross has no meaning in Asian thought, they said.

And I realized that progressivism in religion wasn’t just the old liberalism of doing good for others. It was this insidious idea that there are oppressor groups and there are victim groups. That your group is the enemy of my group. And there is no Truth – or at least, our truth – the Christian truth – is merely a side to be fought against.

People gripe about political correctness, but they don’t know where it comes from. Well, this is where it comes from. This is the ideology that gave it birth. And it’s not merely an annoyance; it is, in fact, a thoroughly planned attack upon the values we were brought up to live by – because those who identify with other groups want to replace them with values of their own.

It started in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and spread from higher education to other fields. Professors who believed in it eventually achieved tenure and then kept out other academics who believed in the old idea of searching for common truths. And whether we’re talking about sociology, or philosophy, or political science, or psychology, or religion, or pop culture, this is what is being taught to our children and young adults by every public institution in our society today.

It is profoundly anti-Christian, for Christianity believes in the catholicity of the church, in a savior who died for all, and a truth that can be translated into every language and lived out in every culture. It is profoundly anti-intellectual as well – for as it believes only in its own ideology, so it reduces everything to ideology, rigidly enforcing its ideas, punishing speech that expresses what it disagrees with. Though it preaches tolerance, it is profoundly intolerant.

And as I say, it is being taught to your children in every institution they participate in – schooling, higher education, pop culture, politics, the diversity racket their employers foist upon them, even (in many cases) their churches. It is the Spirit of the Age. It is the challenge of our day – in politics and in education and in religion. And what can we do about it?

St Paul wrote to the Colossians, "See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ." The philosophy that Paul was criticizing is what later became known as Gnosticism, and the “elemental spirits of the universe” would have been the emanations of deity that they preferred to the incarnation of God in the Man, Jesus Christ. Still, I think Paul would recognize Conflict Theory as an ideology also attempting to replace Christian doctrine, and those two questions we started with – about the group or the individual, and about whether people were primarily consensual or conflictual – as the basic "elements" of the theory. And he would have said the same thing in response to it: That in Christ “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,” and when you come to him, you are connected to the supreme authority. He defines what is good, not the group or the individual, and he commands it as well.

He has set us free from these things that blind us and bewilder us, even as he has set us free from our sins, "having canceled the bond which stood against us, with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross." And as for these ideological questions, these pronouncements of the all-powerful Spirit of the Age, well, "He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them . . . "

And he goes on to say, ”Therefore let no one pass judgment on you” because you refuse to go along with the crowd and say all the right things. “Let no one disqualify you,” he says, “insisting on self-abasement” before their idols. Indeed, "If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch (referring to things which all perish as they are being used), according to human precepts and doctrines?" Oh, they may sound so right and proper – everyone says so – but while "[t]hese have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting rigor of devotion and self-abasement and severity to the body . . . they are of no value in checking the indulgence of the flesh."

To belong to Christ is to be profoundly counter-cultural. We must be prepared to be rejected by those to whom our beliefs are an affront. And, yeah, we shouldn’t go about trying to be obnoxious about it. We must be loving in all we do, but we also must not think that there can be any real meeting of the minds with those who deny that minds from different groups can meet at all.

To belong to Christ is to belong to him who is from eternity, not to the Spirit of the Age, that is constantly passing away. I tell you, the Spirit of the Age is the spirit of bondage, who preaches liberation, but whose service is slavery, even for its unhappy devotees. But whom the Son makes free, is free indeed: free to love and be loved; free to make friends everywhere; free to reach across the artificial barriers of group identity and affirm a truth that unites us rather than separates us; free to join hands and together enter the kingdom where there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, nor any barbarians or outsiders at all, but Christ is all, and in all.

So don’t let clever people – cool people – socially powerful people – convince you of things that overthrow your allegiance to Christ. And don’t give your children as sacrifices to Moloch, either. Be free. Live free. And help others find their way out of darkest Zeitgeistheim.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Saturday, February 11th, 2017
4:31 pm - Whose woods are these, I think I know
I finally made it back out to Wilderstead yesterday. It has been two months since I've had time to go. I didn't really feel like I had the time to spare this week, either, but I decided that I really, really needed to get over there.

It was a beautiful winter day that felt as if it were on the edge of spring. I wandered across the creek, which was full of water. All the springs were overflowing. This shot was taken from the log bridge looking upstream at the bathing pool.


I was nursing a bittersweet feeling about many things, not least how little progress I seem to be making on my house and how when I get over to Wilderstead, my time is taken up with chores rather than sharing it with the people I love. Still, it felt good to be in the woods again. It was so quiet, you could hear the water in the creek chuckling over the rocks from the cabin.

I built a fire in the stove to knock the chill off the cabin. Made some supper and read a book. When it got too dark to read, I switched on my computer and by the light of the screen typed up my sermon notes for Sunday. Then I went to bed early. This morning, I stayed in the sack until I was completely slept out. Looking at the clock on the table downstairs, I noted that I had slept for eleven hours.

Felt immensely better this morning. My bittersweet feelings had been replaced by hopefulness. Instead of thinking to myself how few years I might have left in which to enjoy my holler, I began to focus on what these next few years will bring. Let's say I have around fifteen years of sufficient health and hardiness left to still enjoy camping and hiking and so on. Compared to my fifty-some years of Scouting experience, that's not much, and it will fly by. But to my two grandcubs, the next fifteen years will go by very slowly, filled to the brim with all kinds of important thoughts and feelings and experiences. When I'm 78, fifteen years from now, James will turn 19 and Daniel will be 21.

So soon, I'll get to see them out the holler more. Their mother might bring them out to do school in the woods. And very soon, Daniel, at least, will be old enough to start trying his wings on overnight or weekend stays without Mom or Dad. I can see them helping me build my house, then helping me clear out the scrubby areas to develop the woods into a more park-like place. I see them building their play forts, scrabbling in the creek, roaming the hills. I see us building fires, camping out, learning to listen to the night sounds, sharing important moments together.

I have spent over forty years teaching and leading other people's kids. And I was too busy (and really, too immature) to really give my own children what I should have when they were young. But these two: they will get all I have to give them. When someone asked Teddy Roosevelt why he was planning an expedition to the Amazon in his retirement, he replied that it was his last chance to be a boy. Thinking of all the things I want to share with Daniel and James makes me as excited as a boy again. I want to do everything all over again, in the best of company.

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