Saturday, August 5, 2006

Postmodernism... Sort of

I've been exploring worldviews, truth, etc. for a sermon series on "Reframing Your Worldview." I stumbled across a page that randomly generates short academic papers based on stock terms and phrases. It's quite fun. There is also an adolescent poetry generator linked from that page.

Check it out at:

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Grace and Justice in Society

I was at a friends how the other night playing poker (gasp!). One of the things I love about poker is that it is so interactive. If you are simply playing for chips, or even nickel and dime poker, you can have several hours of great fun getting to know people more deeply for less than the price of a movie with popcorn.

Regardless, this blog is not about the poker game but the conversation after the poker game. It was great. It was political. It was great because it was political. I think that the devil (forces of evil, etc.) have scored a great victory in defining polite conversation. What two topics are off limits in polite conversation: Religion and politics. These are are two of the most important subject a group of people could ever talk about. Our relationship with God and our societal relationships with each other. By moving religion and politics out-of-bounds, we have virtually ensured that we will continue to have greater conflict and deeper misunderstanding because we can't or won't discuss two of the things at the very roots of our lives.

So the game ended and the conversation turned to politics. The political leanings of the people around the table varied significantly. I will probably talk about my own political leanings at some point. Not tonight, however.

One person at the table said he was a Democrat because he believes that they are more grace-filled. Bear in mind that this is a table of Lutherans. We believe that the three cornerstones of our faith are grace alone, faith alone and scripture alone. So his following the party that seemed to offer more grace into people's lives makes sense.

Here is my struggle: is 'grace' the proper posture for a government? Will a grace-filled government lead to a more grace-filled society or to a more chaotic society? In the sphere of Christian faith, individuals are absolutely called to -- even obligated to -- be grace-giving toward others because of God's grace to us. Is this the sphere in which the government operates, however. This especially needs to be thought through in a country like the U.S. wherein the government is constitutionally prohibited from establishing a religion.

My current thinking is that grace is not the government's job. The government's job in the US is to protect us from external enemies and maintain justice within our country irrespective of a person's color, creed, social status, etc. I would call on people everywhere to be gracious, to feed the poor, etc. But to do it voluntarily. As soon as we, the citizens, recruit the government to do our charity (that is our loving of others), it ceases to be love because it is compelled. By using the government to feed the poor, we institute a system of compulsory charity (an oxymoron if I've ever heard one). It is possible that this compulsory charity actually makes our society meaner. Instead of people having to face the poor among us, we can be sure that there is a program somewhere to care for them and as long as we pay our taxes we are doing our part. Instead of having to think about others and make decisions about charity (about love), feeding the poor becomes one more deduction on the pay stub, not worthy of consideration because there is no choice in the matter any way.

Criminals are another matter for another time.

May you recognize God's blessings in your life.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

BOOK: "Rumors of Another World" by Philip Yancy

Just finished reading "Rumors of Another World: What On Earth Are We Missing?" I really enjoyed it. It's sort of a post-modern look at natural theology (natural theology is discerning the existence and character of God simply through our observance of thing in an around us and without primary reliance on any sacred scripture as authoritative).

Unfortunately or fortunately, I have a fairly skeptical nature. This often pokes at my faith. In "Rumors," Philip Yancy takes a look at what we see in the world to see if it matches what the Bible teaches. He also looks at several "natural" phenomena -- such as sex, guilt and altruism under horrific oppression -- and sees in them rumors of the spiritual world around us which is not available to direct observation.

One great point in "Rumors" is how to view the commandments of God. If we live a purely materialistic existence, many commands of God seem on the surface to be dictates of the cosmic killjoy. If we only look forward to our spiritual existence in heaven, then we are putting off today's pleasures for tomorrows joys. Yancy's assertion is that this is generally a false dichotomy. God's instructions come to us not only -- or even primarily -- as rules defining sin but more as instructions toward the best life. God made sex. God wants us to have the best sex possible. Sex is best experienced in marriage. Guilt (properly) is a sensitivity in our soul alerting us to areas of brokenness or weakness just as pain in our physical bodies is a gift from God that keeps us from damaging ourselves further. God's instructions bring the best life in every sense, not just in the 'spiritual' sense.

The end result of this book is Yancy's assertion that we need to see life with "stereoscopic vision." The question is not whether earthly live matters more or heavenly life matters more. They are both intricately intertwined. We can see this when we have eyes to see. Both worlds exist. Both worlds matter. We live in both worlds right now, even though we see one with our eyes and one with our spirits.

I highly recommend "Rumors of Another World" by Philip Yancy. If you are in the area, you may borrow my copy.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Cars (the movie), etc.

It's been a long time since I blogged last. Haven't done much work on hell since I mentioned it last time. I did do some research on the historical reliability of "The Da Vinci Code" for a sermon I preached. That was very good for me. This week (and probably the next two or three) I'll be preaching about the Bible, who wrote it, how the various writings were compiled into one book, etc. I really enjoying the research for this sermon. Lots of stuff I haven't looked at since seminary.

Now, the movie.

I recommend the movie "Cars" for just about anyone. I took my two girls (4 & 7 yrs old) to see it. There is absolutely nothing offense about this movie. Not one off-color thing I wish my girls wouldn't have heard. Furthermore, it is a beautiful movie. The animation is eye-candy unbelievable. It is rich, vibrant and colorful. If you are thinking about this movie, you should know that my 4 yr old got a little bored. Even though the animation is stunning, it is a plot-driven movie and so my 4 yr old lost interest after a while. There's almost no slapstick in it (one exception my younger daughter liked was "tractor-tipping.") Anyone who likes nice movies with nice plots that come to full resolution will like this movie as long as they aren't the type that is simply turned off by animation.

From a Christian point of view, the movie has good moral points that are in line with Christian values. Although Christianity isn't first and foremost about values but about God's love that reached down to us in Jesus Christ. In that sense, the movie was neither pro-Christian nor anti-Christian. It's ust a beautiful movie with a nice story. I'll see it again. I might even buy it when it comes out on DVD (I love animation for some reason).

Sunday, April 23, 2006


I've lately been bothered by the idea of Hell quite a bit.

My generic view of Hell is this: a place/existence of separation from God, the source of all that is good, peaceful, joyful, etc. It is painful in the deep, soul-torment type of pain that is of an entirely different and worse order than physical pain, like when you wished your parents would spank you for your misbehavior but instead they just looked at you and you felt very distant from them.

The question, "How can a loving God send people to Hell?" does not seem unreasonable question. It is a question that bothers me. I do not like to think of people -- any people -- in eternal torment because they are separated from God forever.

In "The Great Divorce," C.S. Lewis concocted a story wherein people in Hell can get to heaven but, often as not, choose Hell. This is where the idea of Hell really begins to bother me.

I see two options:
1. Whether or not I go to Hell is completely up to God.
2. Whether or not I go to Hell is a result of my decisions.

I don't like either choice.

If I my eternal destiny is entirely in the hands of God then it is out of my control. I like to be in control of things. I like to steer the ship of my life. To think that the most serious event of my existence -- my eternal destination -- is completely out of my control is not a happy thought.

On the other hand, having my eternal destiny be up to my choice doesn't seem so great either. I make poor choices all the time. I just ate 1/2 box of Fudge Grahams even though I know they are bad for me. If the Bible's presupposition of Heaven is true (that we enter by grace as a free gift), that puts a stumbling block in my way. I must check my pride at the door. There's no room left for, "Isn't John great?!!" If I must drop my pride and humbly accept a gift I can never repay in order to enter heaven, I'm afraid that in some moments I would choose Hell and keep my pride.

To be continued...

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Excited about reading a book I remember liking

I am excited about reading a book I read before. It's entitled, "Blue Like Jazz." I don't recall the content but I remember liking the book a great deal. I just ran across it again. I opened it up and found this "Author's Note" just before the first chapter:

I never liked jazz music becaue it doesn't resolve. But I was outside the
Bagdad Theater in Portland one night when I saw a man playing the saxophone. I stood there for fifteen minutes, and he never opened his eyes.

After that I liked jazz music.

Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way.

I use to not like God because God didn't resolve. But that was way before this happened.

Oh, that resonates with my soul. I get weighed down when it seems that getting the rules right is what God is all about. I don't really like God when I feel like God is all about the rules.

But watching Jesus love God really hits me in my heart. And then watching other people love Jesus -- not the rules, not their resolved idea of Jesus -- in an ever growing and changing discovery of where Christ leads us and how wonderfully he leads us. Strange, new, beautiful sounds coming out of people's souls. Unexpected harmonies of humans lives where nobody thought they could exist.

Yeah, I'm looking forward to reading "Blue Like Jazz" again. I'll let you know how it goes.

Tuesday, March 7, 2006

Rewrite of letter from God

I have seen the follwing "note from God" in several variations:
Good Morning, This Is God! : I will be Handling all Your Problems Today. I Will Not Need Your Help -- So Have a Good Day. I Love You!
It's a very comforting little piece, but I'm not sure it's very accurate. I have rewritten this "note from God" to reflect the reality of biblical revelation and life on this fallen planet. Although it's a little longer, I believe it more accurately reflects the truth. Here it is for your thought, reflection, reaction:

Good morning,

This is God. I will not be handling all your problems today. How would you ever grow strong if I did that? What kind of loving parent solves all problems for their children? If earthly parents know that their children need to grow through their problems, how much more do I know that handling your problems for you would keep you from the growth I desire for you?

No, your problems are your problems and you have to take responsibility for your decisions. However, you should also remember that I will never leave you or forsake you. I am with you always. Just because you do something stupid or wrong, that doesn’t mean I’m going to walk away from you and leave you on your own.

And though I generally won’t rescue you from the earthly consequences of your decisions (because I love you!), my son, Jesus Christ, has already taken the eternal consequences of your sin on his own shoulders. The train you are on leads straight to my door and I am thrilled! You will be with me forever where your brokenness – in fact, the brokenness of the whole world – will be undone. What you see as death is actually birth. You can’t understand it any more than a baby in the womb can understand the world of light and air. Trust me, it will be better than you can imagine.

But, for now, you are on the broken earth. You will reap what you sow. And, unfortunately, you may also reap consequences from other people’s poor or evil decisions. Here is what you need to know: You are my child because of what Jesus did. Now, even though I won’t solve your problems, I will redeem them. Your life, even your mistakes, even the times you choose evil, are part of a tapestry of history more complex than you can hold in your little brain (sorry about the “little brain” thing, but it’s true :-). My dear child, the very essence of your life is safe in my hands. Today I free you to love with wild abandon! Let it go! You’re not on earth all that long in the grand scheme. Don’t think your decisions don’t matter, they do. But don’t put too much weight on them, either. Seriously, my precious little one, do you think you can derail my plans? There’s more going on that you will ever know. Follow Jesus and you’ll do fine. I love you more than you can understand. I love you with all my heart.

Love, Dad (a.k.a. God, Maker of All, Lord of the Universe, etc.)

P.S. I snuck in while you were sleeping and watched you breathe for a while. You are so beautiful. You really are the apple of my eye.

Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Meditation on Ash Wednesday

According to Jesus, Ash Wednesday must be the happiest day of the year.

Why? Because on Ash Wednesday we remember our own impending death, our mortality, our utter and final lack of power.

But how can this make us happy? Because the truth, as Jesus says, will set you free.

If death were the only truth of life, that would not be very freeing except, I supposed, to those who would like to live with abandon.

But Jesus says that recognizing our utter helplessness is the road to "Blessedness" -- peaceful, internal, contentedness and serenity unaffected by events around us or the circumstances of our lives.

Read Jesus' words in Matthew 5:
"...when He was seated His disciples came to Him. Then He opened His mouth and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

The Greek word translated as "blessed" connotes a peaceful and contented state of being that is unaffected by surrounding circumstances. There is an island in the Mediterranean -- Cyprus, I think -- whose nickname is "The Blessed Isle." The reason is that the soil is so rich, the fruit so delicious, the produce so bountiful, that to those who live on this island do not need any outside thing for contentment. That is the "blessedness" that Jesus is talking about: not needing any outside thing for peace and contentment.

The other word that deserves mention is "poor." There are two Greek words for poor. One means poor as in a day laborer who earns enough to live that day. He isn't able to save anything. The other word for poor refers to a person who is crouched down and begging. In this poor, not only does a person not own anything, he lacks the ability to earn anything.

So, “Blessed are the poor in Spirit." If I may paraphrase: "Deeply contented are those who are beggars in spirit, who recognize not that they have work to do but that they can do no work."

In the original language, there is no verb in the first clause. When we say "Blessed are..." it sounds like a statement of fact. This phrase is actually an exclamation. Not simply “blessed are," but “Oh, how blessed!”

Oh, how deeply, internally, unshakably contented and peaceful are those who see their utter helplessness before God.

How do you get there? How do you get that peace?

An honest read through the Sermon on the Mount will put you on the right road.

Be warned: The road to blessedness is poverty of spirit and it is not necessarily pleasant. It is generally not fun. But it is the right road And at the end of the road is blessedness, joy and peace that cannot be taken away.

Let me give you a few excerpts from the Sermon on the Mount:

“Unless your righteousness exceeds the the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of God.”

“Whoever is angry with his brother without cause shall be in danger of judgment”

“Whoever says, “You fool!” will be in danger of hell fire.”

“Whoever looks at another lustfully has already committed adultery in his or her heart”

“Anyone who divorces except for causes of marital unfaithfulness commits adultery”

“Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who use you and persecute you. If you only love those who love you, what big deal is that. Everyone does that.”

“You will be judged with the same judgment you use on others.”

“Be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.”

How are you feeling now? If you took the scriptures I was reading seriously, my guess is that you are not feeling so great. Rather like your stuck. Like it's impossible. Like you can't live up to the expectations.

Brothers and sisters, welcome to 'poor in spirit.' Welcome to blessedness. You are at the door to the kingdom of God.

This place is not the kingdom of God by nature. The Bible says that Satan is the prince of this world. The wages of sin is death. We are by nature objects of wrath. Poverty of spirit without God is blind resignation to the forces of the universe.

But with God, things are different. Ash Wednesday is “poverty of spirit” day. Ash Wednesday is “beggar day." We put ashes on our foreheads to remind us of our poverty, to remind us that in the grand scheme we are crouching beggars every one of us. That person you dislike, those people on the other side of the fence from you, the one you despise whose presence you can barely stand -- every one a beggar and equal before God. You walk together as beggars in rags.
The people who should 'get it straight,' yhe ones above you, the ones below, the people far above you, the people far beneath you -- every one a beggar and equal before God. You walk together as beggars in rags.

Oh the blessedness when we recognize that we all walk together as beggars in rags. Because in the grand scheme in all of God's economy, in the deepest part of our spirits, beggars receive what workers cannot earn.

The ashes on our forehead remind us of our poverty. The shape of the cross on our forehead reminds us of God's gift. The Bible tells us that Jesus was God's Son and that he came to die. Jesus' death makes things right with God. He took the punishment for our sin upon himself. Our sins are no longer counted against us. We are adopted as sons and daughters into God's own family. This is the gift given to beggars but not available to workers because the price is too high.

What price for a life? What price would you name for the life of one of your loved ones? How could someone pay you for the life of a son or daughter, a father, a mother, a close friend? How many years of work? How much money? How much time?

The idea of putting a price on the life of a loved one is ridiculous.

I believe that God thinks that too.

When we refuse to be “poor in spirit," when we refuse to be “beggars," when we refuse to see that we are all beggars in rags, we are asking God what the price for the life of his son is. How much, God, until I am freed from my obligation? How much love until I don't have to love any more? How much forgiveness until I don't have to forgive any more?

These are not the words of a beggar receiving a gift. The words of a beggar are “thank you”

As we see the ashes, let us remember that we are beggars all -- to the left, to the right, across this country, around the world, we are beggars all. And in God's economy, beggars receive what workers cannot earn: Forgiveness from God. Adoption into God's family. Serenity. Peace. Joy in the midst of sorrow.

Oh, how blessed the poor in spirit, theirs is the kingdom of heaven!

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Book Recommendation

I am currently wounded so if there are typos I will beg your forgiveness. I cut my left index finger fairly deeply. I have it splinted to keep the skin from moving around so that the cut can heal quickly. Makes typing a little more challenging. But enough of that.

I want to bring to your attention one of the best books on public speaking that I have ever read: "Speak Like Churchill Stand Like Lincoln: 21 Powerful Secrets of History's Greatest Speakers." The author, James C. Humes, has written speaches for five different presidents. The book is filled with practical tips for becoming an engaging speaker and driving your message home. It is also very readable, littered with anecdotes from the lives of people like Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, Napolean Bonaparte, Benjamine Franklin, FDR and Ronald Reagan.

I heartily recommend it for anyone who ever has to give a presentation of any kind. I would also ask that, if you are thinking of purchasing the book online, you consider buying it through the Amazon bookstore at (look at the nav bar on the left side of the screen). A portion of the proceeds will support the mission and ministry of Journey of Life Lutheran church, where I find -- somewhat to my own surprise -- that I am the pastor.

Friday, February 3, 2006

Holy Communion could (maybe) use some changes...

WARNING - Funny or not, the following is intended to be humor. It's not even sarcasm with a point. I'm just being silly and hoping you laugh. But it's about a sacrament so you may not find it funny. Read on at your own risk.

So, as a pastor of a church, I am thinking about how to make things more attractive to people. I think, perhaps, Holy Communion is a place where we could institute some creative changes.

Currently we use red wine. We also offer white grape juice (still "fruit of the vine") for people who can't or prefer not to take red wine. We use a sweet red, but I think that's probably a little narrow-minded for our easy-going, 21st century society. I think that beginning in February I will offer a wider choice of wines. Perhaps a Merlot or a Cabernet Savignon as an all-around red choice and a simple Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio for the white. In the long run, we will probably need to expand our selection. A Pinot Noir or Shiraz for a wine with a little more bite. A Reisling would catch a few stragglers. And I suppose we should offer White Zinfandel, though I think White Zin is for people who think they ought to drink wine but would rather drink punch. Adding a Chianti would round out our selection rather nicely (as long as the whites are chilled). To really reach all members of the community, we should allow people to bring their own favorite wine to be stored at church (for a small pouring donation).

Then there's the bread. As we move into the church of the future, little round unleavened wafers pressed with a cross won't do. They aren't very tasty anyway. We should look at offering a variety of artisan breads. Crusty French. Warm, soft Italian. Perhaps a braided loaf for that special Sunday. While we're at it, we should probably offer some spreads or dipping sauces. Butter (or Smart Balance). Two or three varieties of olive oil should suffice -- regular, garlic, and some flavor of the month.

Now the Lord's Supper is starting to sound appealing. We could even put this in the paper and a nice glossy brochure.

To really take this all the way, we may even want to consider melting cheese on the bread.

But we'd have to use a real oven. Microwave ovens aren't real heat. They're not natural. I'm not sure if it would be real communion if we melted the cheese in a microwave.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

I have come to a conclusion: Marijuana should not be illegal

First, let me be clear:

I am not advocating the use of marijuana.

Now that my position on marijuana use is clear (somewhat), let me tell you why I don't think marijuana should be illegal.

Marijuana does not induce violence like another legal intoxicant: alcohol. I grew up with an alcoholic parent who was generally a loving father and good provider. However, there was regular drinking, inconsistent behavior and occasional serious violence. Drunk people get violent all the time. Ask a cop. Does anyone ever smoke a joint then get rowdy and start a brawl? I don't have any first-hand knowledge of marijuana, but people who know tell me that it is simply not the nature of the weed.

So question number one must be: Why is alcohol legal and marijuana illegal? I have yet to hear a good answer to that question.

Oh, by the way, I am not advocating the use of marijuana.

We tried alcohol prohibition in the US. All it did was increase crime. Alcohol prohibition also increased the profitability of alcohol sales, which means that people who sold alcohol would recruit harder to get others to drink or sell their product and fight harder to protect their racket. I recently read that alcohol consumption actually decreased after prohibition was repealed. Makes sense to me. Legalizing alcohol a) significantly reduced the profit margin because there was significantly reduced risk involved in producing or distributing alcohol; b) removed the 'forbidden fruit' factor from alcoholic consumption; and c) let the market develop efficient means of production and distribution. Consumers ended up with a safer, less-expensive product and all the alcohol distribution schemes that relied on intimidation and violence were wiped out with the stroke of a pen. And remember, alcohol consumption went down after prohibition was repealed.

Legalizing marijuana would have the same effect as legalizing alcohol did. There would suddenly be little profit in this easily grown weed. The 'forbidden fruit' factor would be drastically reduced. And legal market forces would drive up the efficiency of production and distribution while driving down the price. As a bonus, if marijuana was legal, it could be taxed and the money used for public education against drug abuse. Marijuana use might even go down!

By the way, did I mention that I am not advocating the use of marijuana?

Some object by saying that marijuana is a gateway drug. I believe it is only a gateway drug because it is a high-profit drug spread through illegal trafficking. The gateway that marijuana use currently opens is not so much the gate to higher drug use but the gateway to illegal drug use. Make it legal and the gateway is gone. Legalizing marijuana would take it out of the illegal drug trade where there is a signficant profit incentive to recruit new users.

Did I mention that I am not advocating the use of marijuana?

It has taken me a while to get to this point. I understand people being afraid of what would happen if marijuana was legalized. However, I am convinced that the societal cost of keeping marijuana illegal (crime, violence, etc.) is much higher that the cost would be for legal marijuana use. There may be more lost work days... or not. People may drive while high (like they don't already!), but that should be handled like alcohol: we punish the criminal behavior rather than criminalizing the product.

It seems very clear to me that we waste untold millions of dollars and make the Unite=d States a more violent place by keeping marijuana illegal.

However, please remember that I am not advocating the use of marijuana.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

God, Hurricanes and Ray

I am always wary of people calling God to their side in any conflict, from sports to war. Now Ray Nagin, mayor of New Orleans, has spoken as though he knows the mind of God. God is sending hurricanes because he's mad at America. (see As with most leaders who invoke God in this way, Mr. Nagin's opinions are the ones that God supports. So God is sending hurricanes and we'd better listen to Mr. Nagin.

First, God may be mad at the United States of America... or not.

Either way, Jesus made it perfectly clear that calamity is not a sign of God's particular disfavor on a particular group. In Jesus' day, a tower had collapsed and fallen on a small group of people. Jesus said, in regard to the incident, "Do you think that tower fell on those people because they were worse sinners? No."

New Orleans has a reputation (I haven't researched it, but it's apparently well-deserved) of being a city of corruption. Did God aim the hurricane at New Orleans because they are worse sinners? Jesus says, "No."