Friday, December 31, 2004

God and the Tsunami

I got a letter today from someone said he knows faith is not a rational emotion, but he is deeply bothered by why God appears to be so quiet in the face of disasters (I assumed he was thinking primarily of the tsunami in the Indian Ocean), especially when he was so active in the Old Testament. I thought I'd post my response, for what it's worth.


I actually think Christianity is rational, although it may not appear to be rational at times, just as some of the discoveries of science appear to be irrational, but they are only irrational from our - or, at least, my - limited perspective. For example, if I understand correctly, scientists believe that electrons circling in atoms can jump between lower and higher orbits without passing through the intervening space. To me that seems pretty irrational, but if it is indeed the case, I believe there is a rational explanation for it even if I don't know it, and even if I can't understand it.

Your concern seems to be that God is silent when it appears he should be active and vocal. You mention that in the Old Testament he was active.

First, about the Old Testament. Remember that the Old Testament miracles were spread out over thousands of years, and how many were there? Maybe a couple hundred recorded? And they were all in a very limited area - in and around Israel. So the likelihood of your seeing a miracle, even in Old Testament times, would be very unlikely.

But that still leaves the question of why God so often appears to be silent or inactive. Why doesn't he step in and save people, like the 100,000-plus who have lost their lives from the tsunami? Or the little girl who steps in front of a truck and is killed, or the child dying of cancer?

It seems it would be wonderful if everyone lived to a ripe old age. But suppose everybody did live to a ripe old age? Then wouldn't we be asking these questions...

- Why does God allow people to forget even the people they most love?
- Why does God let people's bodies become so frail?
- Why does God let us go blind?
- Why does God allow people to die so suddenly, without even a chance to say goodbye?
- Why does God allow people to die so slowly, suffering for months or years?
- Why does God allow some people live to 105 while others only get to live to 92?
- What kind of a joke is God playing, making people only to let them die?

In essence, I think what we object to is that life is imperfect, that it is unfair because some people are happier or live longer than others, and that it all ends in death. We want paradise back.

But this, I'm afraid, is the curse we live with. But also, perhaps God is speaking in this disaster. Maybe God wants to impress on our minds that this life is tenuous, that there are no guarantees here about health and long life, that we should not put our full hope in this world, but put a good portion of our focus on the next life, and maybe he wants it clear that we can't wait until 15-minutes before our God-guaranteed lifespan is about to end before turning to Jesus.

I don't know. But not only does the Bible make no firm guarantees of long life and good health, but there are places where it promises disaster. Sections of the Old Testament and the Book of Revelation are examples.

Most of this is speculation, and I'm sure it doesn't answer your question fully. Like you, I want to understand as much as I can, but ultimately - Christian or non-Christian - you have to accept that there are questions for which you will not find a full answer. But at least, as a Christian, you can rest assured that a just and good answer really exists, because you believe in a just and good and all-knowing God.

God bless you

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Crucify the Christians

Two days before Christmas I was a bit bored. So much so that I decided to look at chat rooms, which I had never really bothered with before. I went to a Christian chat room on Yahoo at about the time a group of what I will politely call "non-Christians" decided to barge in.

I watched briefly as "crucify_the_christians" and "angrysatan666" and others cursed and insulted Christians, typed obscenities in clever ways to avoid the filters, described what they said were Jesus' sexual preferences, and so forth.

Then "crucify" said Christians are ignorant.

"What makes you think that?" I asked.

He said we are ignorant because God doesn't make sense and the Bible is just a book written by humans.

"You ever read the Bible, Cruz?" I asked.

Sure he had, he said. His parents made him read it, and he really liked the nasty parts in the Old Testament about the God of anger and Hell.

Not recalling anything about Hell in the Old Testament, I asked him where he had seen this.

He didn't know.

"Can you name five books of the Bible, Cruz?"

He couldn't name one.

"You don't know the Bible at all, do you Cruz?"

That, he said, wasn't his point. His point was that Christians need to question the Bible.

Hmmm. So, he had barely a clue about the Bible's contents, but was sure it was wrong and should be questioned.

"I'm lost, Cruz."

"Good," he replied, "That's where you should be. The point," he said, "is that there is no point."

Ah. So I should be at the point where there are pointless points.

We also talked about the existance of God. I asked if he knew any of the arguments for the existance of God.

"How would you reply to the cosmological argument for God, Cruz?"

He didn't know what it was until I explained it.

But that was okay by him. All he wanted, he said, was to make Christians realize that there is no answer, that "the answer is a question."

I tried to point out that he had been making statements of what he believed to be fact, so he was kind of like Christians (and everybody else) in that he believed specific things to be true.

No, he said, that was "just a manner of speaking."

O-kay. So now we have points that don't have points and questions that are answers and facts that are just a manner of speaking. All that and he's sure God doesn't exist and the Bible is wrong although he hadn't a clue about the arguments for and against God and had nothing but the vaguest notions of what is in the Bible.

I offered to pray for him, and he asked me not to. It sounded as if the idea made him a bit nervous.

"Don't waste your breath, it won't help."

"Sorry, Cruz. You hang around Christians long enough and somebody's bound to pray for you."

So I did.

What was interesting about this slam-bang exchange was that I began to like Cruz, and he's been on my mind and I've prayed for him several times since. While I wasn't going to put up with his junior philosopher nonsense, I felt I kind of got to know a lost kid, probably in high school, who would likely be very polite and friendly in person.

Hey Cruz! I'm still praying for you, buddy.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Merry Christmas!

I just got back from a Christmas Eve service. Singing the beautiful old hymns, a simple message of Christ's advent, everybody with candles lit. It was packed and it was wonderful!

I'll bet the two best attended church services during the year are Christmas and Easter, partly because they're special days, but I'll bet part of it is that it is pretty hard to focus on silly trivia on those days. Unless your church is totally dead, the focus is Christ both days; Christ's birth on Christmas, and Christ's resurrection on Easter.

Maybe churches would be fuller on other days if they focused on Christ then too!

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 10, 2004

The Churching of America

I just read an excellent and encouraging book, called The Churching of America: 1776-1990, by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark.

Basically, it's an historical examination of the church in America, and the book's messages are many. Perhaps the most encouraging message is that the church has actually been growing steadily throughout American history. And perhaps the most useful observation, or warning, is that the more worldly a denonimation becomes, the more dead it becomes. While that's hardly a surprise, it's good to see solid scholarship backing it up.

By "worldly" (my word, not theirs; they use sociological terms) I don't think the authors mean that it's a problem for the church to use modern techniques for communicating with people, but simply that a church will begin to wither if it begins to get fuzzy about its doctrine and about holy living.

The authors suggest that this toning down of the church's stands and soft pedaling of its harder doctrines is initially encouraged by wealthy church members and - interestingly - by the pastoral leadership of the church. Why? Because they both want to fit in with society. Then, one compromise leads to another and pretty soon you have a dying church.

I think this raises an interesting question: How much should the church try to identify with the world in order to win it? I suspect a lot of dying churches initially said they were trying to be more "relevant" to the world when they actually wanted to fit in better. I think a good test is this: Are we compromising our beliefs to fit in? If not, I think we're okay. If we are compromising, I think we're on a downward slope.

A few other interesting points:

The authors say that the downward trend for churches begins in the seminaries. For example, they note that the Methodist Church, after truly explosive growth, began to urge seminarians to study the latest liberal German theology. These students were then assigned to churches and spread their views there. Because the Methodist Church is hierarchal, the individual churches could not reject these pastors, so unhappy parishioners split off from - or were kicked out of - the church, some forming the basis of the Holiness Movement.

The Southern Baptists, on the other hand, do not have a hierarchal organization. Their seminaries went liberal too (and amazingly, had problems virtually from the start!), but unhappy Baptists could not be kicked out of their denomination because the denomination does not have that authority. So conservatives could stay and fight, and they have been fighting, and lately, winning. Also, Baptist churches can select anybody they please as pastor and kick them out if they please. For that reason the Southern Baptists have had more success in maintaining their faith, though it has been a continuing battle for their seminaries.

I take it from this that democracy is good at preserving orthodoxy, and unless a church strongly believes that hierarchy is God-ordained, it should lean toward democracy.

Another interesting observation from the book is that the truly explosive growth of the Baptists and Methodists came when they had unpaid or underpaid amateur preachers. Professional clergy, the authors argue, want to be treated as professionals, get good pay and be respected in the community. This, they argue, kind of nudges the church in a worldly direction. I have often thought that church jobs should pay less than the prevailing wage, for just this reason, so churches don't attract the uncommitted.

But what is truly amazing and exciting about this book is that it explodes the myth that church membership has been declining through the years in America. To the contrary, the authors say it has been on an almost stairstep upward path since colonial days, from 17 percent of the population being church members in 1776 to 60 percent being members in 1980.

The reason people think it has been declining, or has gone in waves, they say, is because they only look at the path of particular denominations, which do indeed rise and fall. But, they note, there are constant renewals that create new churches and revitalize faith. That is the most encouraging message of this book.

This is a very rich book, with a lot of insights, and I'm just touching the highlights here and not even doing them justice. I'm not totally convinced of everything the authors claim, and I am not even sure the authors are Christians, but their book is fascinating and well worth pondering. I highly recommend it.

Friday, November 26, 2004

Is It Just Me?

When I first became a Christian it seemed there was more emphasis in church on... well... God.

We still sing some great songs and hymns that glorify God, but it seems the emphasis has changed a bit; now it seems to be more about people - either what God will do to benefit us or that we ought to be doing something.

I have no objection to either of those topics; Jesus certainly spoke about benefits and responsibilities, and you can find plenty about both these topics throughout the Bible.

But it seems it should all flow from God. My faith is not a cost/benefit analysis and it is not a list of rules (or "principles" or "guidelines" or "steps" or whatever we want to call them), any more than my relationship with my wife is either of these things.

God is the one I love. I long to worship him. I long to connect with him. And when, in church, the benefits or responsibilities of the Christian life are shifted from being the outcome of my love for God to being the centerpiece of the Christian life, I'm disappointed, and I leave feeling I haven't connected with God.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Under Isaiah

Like the books of most of the Old Testament prophets, Isaiah strikes me as disjointed, and I think the reason is that it is not a single narrative, but apparently a series of sermons preached at different times. Nevertheless, there seems to be a general theme. Many of these sermons deal with the fate of nations, of Israel and its neighbors. Isaiah speaks of their sins and of God's judgement upon them, and then of his mercy and forgiveness and restoration for a repentant Israel.


In the midst of these themes, you occasionally notice something a bit curious; something in the text that strikes a slightly discordant note - a promise, perhaps, that appears too lavish for the topic at hand. Odd... as if you were on a boat and noticed a curious swelling in the sea. But then the swelling subsides and the sea returns to normal.

And then, at other points, a beautiful transcendent passage flashes out of the narrative - sometimes for just a second - stunningly unrelated to the apparent topic, and then is gone again, like a jumping fish diving back into the ocean.

As you read, it becomes increasingly clear that Isaiah is about something even greater than the rise and fall of nations. There is something mysterious going on beneath the surface that occasionally breaks into the open. Sometimes you see messianic hints which seem, well... doubtful, blended, as they are, with other topics to the point where they are merely suggestive (Was it just a peculiar current? the reader may ask, or was there really something there under the water?). But at other times the messianic promises simply leap out of the water, flashing clearly in the sunlight, often at unexpected moments in the text.

And toward the end of the book the New simply breaks out with wild abandon - with long messianic passages, such as Isaiah 53, wonderful promises, and descriptions of a new world. The fate of nations is almost forgotten in its glory. It reminds me of the Bible as a whole - the hints and explicit prophesies of the Messiah in the Old Testament, followed by the glorious reality of the Messiah in the New Testament.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

What Happened to Thanksgiving?

I'm not a Scrooge when it comes to Christmas, but it annoys me to be confronted with Christmas decorations and songs before Thanksgiving.

I remember I once did a story for a newspaper about a training class for Santas. They began work the day after Thanksgiving, and I remember thinking that was a bit excessive. But lately I've been seeing Christmas decorations before Halloween, and now, before Thanksgiving, they're everywhere.

For example, I was at Starbuck's this morning nursing a cup of coffee and the store was decorated with snowy wreaths, selling Christmas coffees and playing Christmas songs.

One patron suggested to an employee that it was a bit early for all this Christmas stuff, and another echoed, "Yeah!", and the employee kinda sighed, as if he agreed but didn't have any say in the matter.


What's the matter with Thanksgiving? It's a nice low-key holiday that anybody can enjoy. It has Christian roots, but is not really a Christian holiday. Anybody can celebrate for any reason they want. You can be thankful for family or football, or turkey deep fried in peanut oil, a day off of work, or whatever.

Can't you merchants at least notice Thanksgiving before diving into Christmas? You keep starting Christmas earlier and earlier, so by the time it really arrives I'm going to be sick of it.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

The Polar Express

I just saw the movie, The Polar Express, about a boy who awakens Christmas Eve to a steam train that stops right outside his house. He gets on and it takes him to the North Pole. I really liked the movie. In fact it brought back a strange memory I have barely thought about for decades.

I remember when I was a child I awoke in the early morning and looked out the bedroom window of our little crackerbox house. As I looked I saw a steam train with a light and black smoke from its funnel, silently puffing up the street toward my house. It was a short train, with just a few cars. It wasn't as nice as the Polar Express and it wasn't Christmas Eve, but, like the Polar Express, it was mysterious in an entrancing sort of way.

Later in the morning I told my mom and dad about the train.

They looked confused. They said there was no train on our street. My mom quite sensibly told me there were no tracks. She pointed out that we lived in a canyon that dead-ended into the mountain. There was nowhere for a train to go. She suggested I'd been dreaming. But all her comments seemed absurd to me at the time. Maybe the train was going to a gold mine at the head of the canyon, I thought. And her objection that there were no tracks seemed to me to be pure quibbling. But her logic eventually led me to doubt... somewhat. But to this day I still halfway believe that there is a steam train that goes up Pasadena Glen Road.

And I wonder where it's going.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Fixing Social Security

President Bush has suggested that people be allowed to put part of their Social Security money in their own retirement accounts. Fine, but the problem, as I understand it, is that the Social Security Administration is not putting your money away safe in the bank where it's earning interest (as it should be doing), but rather is using your money to pay current retirees. Therefore, if the gummint lets people put part of their money into their own retirement accounts, that means there's less money to pay current retirees, which means that for a while, there'd be a shortfall.

With that in mind, I want to share my ignorance - for free! - about how to minimize the shortfall to reduce the cost of Social Security.

  • Why not let anybody who is eligible for Social Security work tax free? No federal taxes - at all. If these people were going to retire otherwise, that's no income loss to the government. In return, the government would ask that they delay collecting Social Security for a few years. Nobody would have to do this, but some would, and that would save money. This has the side benefit of helping boost the economy and keeping seniors active and hopefully healthier. Also, I suspect that some of these seniors would be covered by their companies' health plans, which would save money for Medicare.

  • Alternately, working Social Security recipients could be taxed at maybe five percent of the normal rate, and the small amount that is collected from them would help fund Social Security.

  • The Social Security age for people just beginning to work should be raised. Lifespans have been increasing and people can generally work longer. People in the system, however, were promised a retirement date, and we should honor that.

  • Why not let workers put part of their Social Security money in private accounts if they agree to wait until they're older to withdraw their money. The older they are, the less delay they have to accept. If they want no delay, they'd just keep their money in the current system.

  • Why not give workers larger Social Security pensions the longer they delay taking it. I believe this is done to some extent already, and I think the concept should be extended.

  • Why not give people the option to donate their money to the Social Security system. Not many people will do that, but even if some do, it would help.
  • Wednesday, November 03, 2004

    Thoughts on the U.S. Election

    As I reflect on the election, I think it is interesting that a large turnout usually helps the Democrats because there are more Democrats than Republicans, though they aren't as disciplined about voting, so if you can get those Democrats to the polls, you should win. But in this election the turnout was huge, and still the Republicans won.

    Why? Is the electorate becoming more Republican?

    Possibly. James Taranto at OpinionJournal thinks that what he calls the "Roe Effect" is coming into play. His assumption is that people who believe abortion is okay (by which he means Democrats) are more likely to have abortions. This may mean they have fewer children, and if they have fewer children, 18 years later they're going to have fewer voters. Hmm. Maybe so.

    I also think that if the Democrats had to lose, it is too bad for them they didn't lose by a huge margin. An overwhelming loss might have persuaded the vast majority that there is something wrong with their party, rather than letting their radicals weave loopy conspiracy theories to explain the loss. (I think Karl Rove gets far more credit from Democrats than he is due.)

    Something else that strikes me is that the old media went all out for Kerry, and he still lost. CBS is only the most glaring example of this partisanship. I practically gave up reading the LA Times before the election because I could see that almost every political story was slanted to put the Bush administration in a bad light. But, as I said, he still lost, even with the huge power of the media behind him. And I believe he lost because of the Internet and bloggers. They questioned and ripped apart media stories, spread information (and misinformation, though that was quickly corrected) with breathtaking speed. They made the main stream media look ridiculous, and I think that can only have a salutary effect.

    The old media says it has a watchdog role to perform, which is fine. But it is utter hypocrisy for them to then turn around and whine about others watching them. This election others did watch them, despite the whines, and with embarrassing effect on the old media. If this makes the newspapers and broadcast media shape up, great! And even if it doesn't... well, the Internet media is only growing stronger.

    Sunday, October 31, 2004


    Since Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry has been complaining about "outsourcing," I thought I'd add my two cents to that discussion.

    I have two friends, one who is absolutely a Democrat, and another who is quite likely one. Both of them have founded Internet companies that either are - or look as if they will be - fairly successful.

    One of these friends has built his company using programmers in the Ukraine and Shanghai. The other started his company using North American programmers, but is now expanding using programmers in Bulgaria.

    They are, in a word, outsourcing, and this, of course, has given me a great opportunity for kidding. But kidding aside, I really don't see what they're doing wrong.

    Not only are they giving jobs to people in less wealthy parts of the world, but they are also giving jobs to people in the United States. Not to mention making nice products for consumers. So, who's worse off?

    Of course, nobody objects to what they're doing. The problem comes with existing companies that decide to lay off people in the U.S. and replace them with people overseas. And that, of course, is painful for the people who lose their jobs.

    But should we prohibit companies who have hired people in the U.S. from firing them and replacing them with people overseas? If we do that, then it seems we are giving people like my friends a very unfair advantage. My friends get to pay very low labor costs, while existing companies, which have hired and - for some time, at least - provided a living for American workers, would have to pay higher American labor rates.

    At an extreme, the companies with the higher labor costs might go out of business, so the people whose jobs would have been outsourced might lose their jobs anyway.

    But I really don't see this happening. I think the concern about outsourcing will die away because other jobs will arise to replace lost jobs. Like what? Well, I think again of one of my friends. He and his partner might not have been able to start their company if it wasn't for low cost programmers in the Ukraine and Shanghai. But because they were able to start their company, now they are able to hire people in the United States - including programmers. These are U.S. jobs that might not otherwise have existed.

    So I think in the short run it will be painful for some people, but in the long run there will be more jobs, both in the U.S. and abroad.

    Sunday, October 24, 2004

    Of Address Books and Tigers

    I had two conversations in the past few days, both with nuggets worth sharing.

    In one instance, a friend and I were talking about the presidential candidates, and he said of John Kerry, "A tiger doesn't change his stripes just because he's running for president."

    While true enough, I burst out laughing - imagining all these tigers giving stump speeches.

    The second comment was a bit more profound (And what couldn't be more profound than the stripy tiger comment?). A few people from work, including the company founder, went out to lunch the other day, and the founder, who is extremely bright and very successful, made this off-the-cuff remark. He said that sometimes he forgets people he has met, so he occasionally reads through his address book just to remind himself about them.

    That may sound as dull as yesterday's spaghetti to you, but to me it is profound, at least for entrepreneurs. I believe much of my boss's success is due to his connections, and to his hiring and working with people he trusts.

    It made me think of how many people I've met, chatted with, liked, whose talents I've admired, and then whom I've forgotten. How stupid! It's like you're doing an interview whenever you meet someone new. Why don't we draw on that knowledge and reenforce it by reviewing our address books periodically?

    Sunday, October 17, 2004


    I just finished reading the book of Leviticus (in the Bible) just because I thought I ought to every once in a while, not because I find it particularly enjoyable, it being essentially a list of regulations, some of which have a logic that is completely opaque to me.

    But some things about Leviticus did strike me as interesting. One was its detail. In it is described with far more detail than I'm sure most of us would care for, various kinds of offerings, animals that can be offered, flaws that make them unaccpetable, exactly how much grain is to be used in offerings. How the offering is to be cut apart, what is to be done with it after it is offered. Etc.

    I wondered about some of the regulations. Why was God so insistent that these sacrifices be done in such a particular way? And then, a little further on, I read the threats against those who offer up their children as offerings to Moloch, and I thought, "Okay, maybe that's why."

    I suspect that all worship, whether Christian or Jewish or whatever, is to a some extent similar. Even those who offer up sacrifices to the Devil ... well, they offer up sacrifices. I can imagine that if the Israelites were offering up whatever sacrifices they pleased and the followers of Moloch were offering up the sacrifices they pleased, the Israelites might be inclined to say, "Hey, why don't we try giving our children as burnt offerings, like the Caananites are doing?"

    Maybe that is the reason for many of the precise regulations in the Old Testament. Perhaps they are intended to make clear to the Israelites that the worship of God is not to be confused with the worship of false gods offered by neighboring peoples, whatever the superficial resemblances may be. God may have demanded differences in their service simply (or partially) to separate the worship of God more completely from the practices of Israel's neighbors, which, if adopted in part, might be adopted in their awful, sinful whole.

    Or maybe - entirely likely - God simply has reasons about which I have no clue.

    Another curiosity that struck me is "uncleanness." Throughout the book people and things are either clean or unclean. It seems to be a negative for whomever is unclean, but it does not necessarily imply any sin on their part. Even a moldy house or clothing can be unclean. Sexual relations cause you to be unclean. Burying a body makes you unclean.

    If you're unclean it appears people were supposed to avoid touching you until you are clean again, and priests weren't supposed to be involved in service to God if they were unclean.

    It almost seems like a combination of health regulations (and it was easy to see the health value of some of the rules) and, to put it in modern terminology, "Wear good, clean clothes to church." In other words, you wouldn't want to see your pastor walk up to the pulpit, setting aside a plumber's plunger with which he'd been unclogging his toilet, wipe his grimy hands on his shirt, and then with those same filthy hands open his Bible and begin to preach.

    Nothing wrong with fixing a broken toilet. It's a good thing to do. But most people regard it as pretty filthy work, and I think Leviticus suggests that we should not associate things that disgust us with God.

    Another thing that struck me is what seemed to be the needless complexity of regulations regarding sexual relations. Why doesn't Leviticus just say, "Limit your sexual relations to your husband or wife?" Well, at that time men could apparently have concubines and slave women with whom they could have sexual relations. (This is suggested in some of the regulations.)In thinking of this, I was reminded of Jesus' comment that Moses allowed divorce because of the hardness of the people's hearts.

    I wonder if some of these Levitical regulations were because the people had hard hearts. Jesus said a man should have one wife, in which case the command I suggest in the previous paragraph might be appropriate, but if, because of men's hard hearts, they insist on having multiple wives, or wives and concubines, or wives and slave women, or whatever combination, then life becomes much more complex and the rules of sexual behavior become much more complex.

    It occurs to me that ideals are often simple, whether it is for marriage or something else. But when the ideal needs to compromise with people's hard hearts, things can get messy. But it is interesting that God - for a while - was willing to make that compromise while leading people more firmly toward monogamy. But the compromise was accompanied by fierce penalties for those who wanted to be even harder of heart. God drew a line, not where he wanted, but where he would temporarily accept.

    The final thing that occurs to me is what I will call the "unscalability" of the sacrificial system outlined in Leviticus. As we would say in the software business, "It doesn't scale," meaning that some things can be done easily if you're only doing it a few times, but it becomes extremely difficult to do it thousands or tens of thousands of times over.

    While offering the complex and numerous sacrifices detailed in Leviticus was possible for a limited number of people, it would appear to be increasingly difficult to do as the number of people increased. Also, as I recall, the tabernacle (and later the temple) were of a very precise size, and simply would not accomodate sacrifices for tens of millions of people.

    Either God did not anticipate this, which seems rather unlikely, or it was his intention that this not be a permanent arrangement, and that perhaps his intention was that the sacrificial system of Leviticus be seen as a foreshadowing of Christ's all-sufficient sacrifice.

    Wednesday, October 06, 2004

    What's Wrong With Trade Deficits?

    I went out for coffee the other day with a liberal friend of mine who was concerned about the U.S. trade deficit with China. He tried to persuade me that it is a problem, but I just don't get it. There are so many real problems in the world, why would anybody spend a moment worrying about the trade deficit.

    I'm not an economist (and if I'm wrong about this, I invite any bright economists out there to explain why) but as I reflect on my life, I realize that my family has for years had a very serious trade deficit with the local supermarket. We pay the market money and the folks there give us food. However, we have never sold anything back to Ralph's; but if this is a problem, I don't see why.

    But maybe it's different between sovereign countries. Maybe because countries can mint their own money, that makes a difference. I'm not sure why it would, but let's assume it does.

    So, basically, the complaint is that we are buying more from China (or whomever) than China is buying from us.

    But it seems that there are only two possible things that can happen with the dollars we send to China: 1) they are used to purchase U.S. goods and services, possibly after being traded through many countries, or 2) they are never used to purchase U.S. goods and services.

    So, if someone eventually buys U.S. goods or services with those dollars, then the trade deficit "problem" is solved.

    On the other hand, if the Chinese bury the dollars in a wet hole in the ground until they rot, then the U.S. has obtained some nice products or services from China, and all the Chinese got out of the deal was some rotted paper. I think we Americans would be happy to have a trade deficit like that forever! We could send the Chinese worthless paper and they'd give us lots of nice stuff.

    Unfortunately for that bright idea, the Chinese are not such idiots.

    Saturday, October 02, 2004

    Intelligent Design in Wired

    The latest copy of Wired magazine has a fairly good discussion of Intelligent Design, which Wired (on the cover of its paper version, at least) calls "Creationism 2.0." Cute.

    If you can get past the sensational cover art ("THE PLOT TO KILL EVOLUTION" in blood-red letters, complete with telescopic crosshairs aimed at the head of an evolving man) the actual discussion of the political aspect of intelligent design was quite good. I wish the author had beefed up the scientific part of the discussion, but still, not bad at all. There's even a sidebar by George Gilder that explains why he subscribes to intelligent design.

    It's a good read. The intelligent design argument, if you are not familiar with it, basically says there are certain vital aspects of life that are "irreducably complex," meaning that they are complicated and cannot be made simpler, which means they could not have started simpler and become more complex by evolution. There needs to have been some designer at work.

    For more on the topic, I'd recommend Darwin's Black Box by Lehigh University's Michael Behe; Icons of Evolution by Jonathan Wells, Darwin on Trial, by Phillip Johnson and Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, by Michael Denton. For a more specifically Christian view, The Fingerprint of God, by Hugh Ross, is excellent. And of course, it's always fun to go back and read Darwin's Origin of Species to see the other side of the argument. Here's a review I wrote of it.

    UPDATE: My friend Chris also recommends God the Evidence : The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason in a Postsecular World by Patrick Glynn.

    Wednesday, September 22, 2004

    New Pray for Denmark Site

    A while ago I wrote about a Web site a friend and I have created for people to pray for the spiritual revival of Denmark. The site didn't look very good at the time, but now I think Pray for Denmark is looking pretty nice. Please take a glance.

    In addition to encouraging prayer for Bill's and my ancestral homeland, I hope Pray for Denmark will be a model for other Web sites by people who want to promote prayer for their homelands.

    Sunday, September 19, 2004

    Robinson Crusoe

    I read to my son frequently, and gave Robinson Crusoe a try. (Great book, but the old language was too hard for him.) But, anyway, it had a neat quote - though in rather archaic language - about the perversity of human nature:

    "They are not ashamed to sin, and yet are ashamed to repent; not ashamed of the action, for which they ought justly to be esteemed fools; but are ashamed of the returning, which only can make them be esteemed wise men."

    Saturday, September 11, 2004

    A Sermon to Himself

    I just started reading Ron Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton (very good so far) and was struck by this description of Hugh Knox, a Presbyterian minister who had a very positive impact on Hamilton's life (pg. 34). Let me quote:

    "As a raffish young man, he exhibited a lukewarm piety until a strange incident transformed his life. One Saturday at a local tavern where he was a regular, Knox amused his tipsy companions with a mocking imitation of a sermon delivered by his patron, the Reverend John Rodgers. Afterward, Knox sat down, shaken by his own impiety but also moved by the sermon that still reverberated in his mind. He decided to study divinity...."

    Fascinating. A mocking sermon delivered by himself convicted Knox's heart and turned him to God.

    Friday, September 03, 2004

    A Disgrace to Journalism

    I am watching the current U.S. presidential election with fascination, and while I'm not certain who the winner will be, I already know who the losers are.

    The losers are the big media: The LA Times, the New York Times, Washington Post and CNN, to name just a few.

    Having worked for some years as a newspaper reporter, including a stint as a stringer for the LA Times, I could see that individuals in the media were generally very liberal, but while their liberal bias would occasionally seep into their news coverage, I always believed that a good story would always trump a bias. In other words, I thought any good reporter would rather have a scoop than cover up a story, whatever his or her biases.

    That may have been the case then, but I no longer believe it is true. What caused my change of opinion was watching Unfit for Command (a book very critical of Sen. John Kerry's experience in Vietnam) be published and rise to the top of Amazon's best seller list, and yet for more than a week the charges layed out in the book were utterly ignored by the big media.

    I saw the story unfold on the Internet, in great detail, with quotations from the Congressional Record and testimony by Kerry's fellow Swift Boat veterans. I watched day by day to see how the major news media would treat it. Would they give the vets charges and Kerry's response equal treatment? Would they give it a liberal spin? Well, no, they didn't spin it, not at all. They pretended it wasn't happening. They wrote nothing.

    Except sometimes they slipped. My local newspaper ran an editorial cartoon showing "mud" being thrown at Sen. John Kerry's war record. But I hadn't read anything in the paper's news pages about criticisms of Kerry's war record. So what was this "mud" the cartoon was referring to?

    Not a clue from my hometown paper's news pages, or from any of the biggies. But a simple search on Google News for "Kerry Cambodia" turned up plenty.

    The "mud" (in part) is this: Kerry claimed to have been on his Swift boat in Cambodia during Christmas, 1968, and that this memory is "seared" into him. Nixon, he said, lied when he said there were no Americans in Cambodia because he, Kerry, was there. However, Kerry's fellow Swift boat commanders, and Kerry's superiors, say he was not in Cambodia. He was at Sa Dec, 55 miles from the Cambodian border.

    After a week or two the story slowly seeped into newspapers' editorial pages (I, for example, wrote a letter to the editor - which was published - asking where the news story about the "mud" was), but the news pages were remarkably free of anything on the topic. After I wrote my letter, the paper ran - grudgingly, it seemed to me - a vague Associated Press story on the bottom half of page two of the B section.

    When the Swift Vets television ad began being run and the biggies could no longer ignore the story, they initially responded with stories about the motivations of the vets, and still studiously ignored what they were actually charging.

    And when they were finally forced to address the charges, they picked the most ambiguous of the charges (how Kerry got his war medals) and for the most part ignored or burried the more clear-cut Cambodia charge.

    Then, finally, Kerry got mad and responded to the Swift Vets, then the media started covering the story... sort of. By contrast, if these were charges against Bush, the media would have been all over it.

    It would be easy to attribute all this to conspiracy, but I really don't think so. I think it is a result of today's media being run by a group of likeminded people who have apparently forgotten - or are intentionally ignoring - what they should have learned way back in Journalism 1A.

    In any case, they are a disgrace to their profession and it makes me glad to have been a reporter back when my colleagues - even my liberal ones - had some professional ethics.

    Wednesday, September 01, 2004

    Being a Pest

    I mentioned earlier spending time in Illinois with Chris, my bestest buddy and frequently debating opponent, at the Cornerstone Festival. Chris is a writer, so I pestered him to create a blog.

    Nah, he said. I've already got a forum. Don't need another one. Yada yada yada.

    So I was rather surprised to get this email from him:

    "Hey Brad,

    You'll never believe what I did:

    Yep, that's where you'll find my blog. I can't believe it did this. I mean, I carried on so much with you about my not wanting to share my thoughts with the e-world. Now this. You're having a bad influence on me. I think the world is coming to and end. And, for some weird, warped reason, it's kinda fun--not the world coming to an end, but having a blog. Thanks for corrupting my soul. :0)"

    I hope you'll give Chris's new blog a look. He already has a couple of thoughtful posts.

    Sunday, August 22, 2004

    Sitting Outside

    I went to church today - sort of. I went but I didn't go in. I've done this three times during the last four weeks. I go with my wife and kids. My wife goes to the service, my kids go to their class, and I sit outside and read the Psalms. I'm up to Psalm 65 now.

    I'm not sure why I'm doing this, except that for a long time now, the services have just left me flat. I go to church to worship God and commune with him, and it hasn't really been happening. I think it's happening for other people - my wife, for example - but not for me. So I sit outside and read Psalms.

    And you know what? I'm coming away from it really deeply refreshed!

    It is interesting to see David in these psalms. David crying over his sins. David proclaiming his innocence. David asking God to avenge him. David complaining that God has abandoned him. David rejoicing in God. It's David all over the place, just like us, and each Sunday God seems to speak through these words to my heart. Today I was really struck by Psalm 42:11:

    Why are you downcast, O my soul?
    Why so disturbed within me?
    Put your hope in God,
    for I will yet praise him,
    my Savior and my God.

    I was a bit droopy this morning, and David's heart echoed mine and added that note of hope: "For I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God." Amen!

    I'm well aware of the admonition in the book of Hebrews not to abandon meeting together with other believers, and I do meet with friends. I'm not trying to be rebellious, I just want to connect better with God, and that seems to be happening in this way.

    I've thought that I could do this at home, but there's always something distracting at home. This hour is totally devoted to God, there's nobody around, the weather is warm, and I'm having a great time, though the activity seems a bit odd and I'm not sure for how long I'll do it.

    Sunday, August 15, 2004

    Chopping Apart Psalm 23

    I was reading today in the Psalms, and relating what I read to what I wrote earlier about the role of "story" in postmodern Christianity.

    The Twenty-Third Psalm in particularly struck me (this is, of course, the wonderful "The Lord is my shepherd" psalm). It is so beautiful and speaks so deeply to my heart, and I wonder whether I would have the same great experience with it if I was to chop it apart verse by verse and try to understand it segment by segment. I think this is the objection postmodernists would pose toward looking at Psalm 23 in this manner.

    And I'd agree with them. The answer is no. I would not have the same great experience. The story aspect of it would be ruined. I don't think it would speak to my heart in the same way at all. But on the other hand, in the past I have looked at it in that manner and pondered it verse by verse, and that has been good in a different way.

    This kind of reinforces my feeling that looking at the scriptures as story shouldn't prevent us from looking for truths within the story. Sometimes I think we should simply read for the story, and at other times dig out the truths that lie within the story.

    Perhaps those - like myself - who have mostly read the Bible for specific nuggets of truth should take a break and read the Bible as story and let it speak to our hearts instead of just to our minds. And perhaps others who read for story and how it speaks to their hearts should take an occasional break and dig for the truths that are contained in the passage.

    Wednesday, July 28, 2004

    Division of Labor

    A friend told me about his church, which has a seniors group come in once a week and do all the prep work to set up for the children's Sunday school. The seniors come and have lunch together and assemble the crafts for the Sunday school teachers, then go home without having to deal with a bunch of squirrelly kids. Then, all the Sunday school teachers have to do is prepare their lessons and teach them. A nice division of labor.

    Saturday, July 17, 2004

    Postmodern Christianity

    At the Cornerstone Festival (mentioned earlier) I encountered what was described to me as "postmodern Christianity." My friend Chris - who is in the know about these kinds of things - described it to me, and I could see it reflected in some of the Cornerstone culture.

    What is postmodern Christianity? Well, Chris and I discussed this on and off for a couple days, and I heard a talk that I would say was deeply influenced by postmodernism, and so now I have a clear understand about one aspect of it: it's vague. And quite likely it is intentionally vague.

    Postmodern Christians seem to be deeply bothered by lists, or steps; by three-point outlines; by "Six Biblical Keys to Financial Freedom," and stuff like that, which I think appears to them to be a bit trite and simplistic. For example, one speaker said he asked a seminary student to list the steps to falling in love with a woman. He said the student came up with the first step (meeting the woman), but then puzzled over it and said that he wasn't sure that it was exactly a step-by-step process. Exactly! And neither, the speaker said, is our relationship with God a step-by-step process.

    Also, Chris said, some postmodernists are kind of negative about "truth." It was unclear to me if they mean that truth is not always easy to grasp, or that it isn't worth pursuing, or that it doesn't exist. I heard a Christian speaker - not at Cornerstone - argue that we should hold our beliefs very lightly. I suspect some postmodernists find truth to be too much of a pat answer, kind of like lists. This is one aspect of postmodernist Chrsitianity I find very concerning.

    So that's (apparently) part of what postmodern Christianity isn't, but what is it?

    Well, Chris said it is about "story." And this was again echoed by the speaker. He said he had rejected his faith and was later brought back to it by the prologue to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. He said that in the prologue Shakespeare outlined the story, beginning to end, and it got him to thinking about the essential elements of a story. I can't remember them all (he listed them), but they were something like: Beginning, Problem, Struggles, Climax, Resolution, and Ending. He said all good stories have these elements, and the human heart actually longs for this pattern. Then he got to thinking about the Bible, and how it precisely follows this pattern. He didn't exactly say this, but I got the feeling he meant that a book from God should follow this pattern - which matches the human heart - and the Bible does.

    So it follows that the Bible should be read and understood as story, not as lists of principles.

    Chris kinda filled this out for me. He said a postmodern Christian gathering focuses both on the story of the Bible and the story of the church members. People are given the opportunity to share their journey in faith.

    A lot of this strikes me as very good. I too have sometimes heard a sermon draw five points from a passage of scripture that I don't believe contains those points. I, too, think there is a lot of value in reading the story parts of the Bible as story. And I totally love the idea of church groups giving a lot of time to letting people share their faith journeys. (A couple decades ago I think this was called, "sharing your testimony," and I've always been a bit saddened to see it fall by the wayside.)

    But what concerns me about Christian postmodernism is the potential of falling off the other side of the horse. I believe Martin Luther told a story about a drunk who left the tavern, got on his horse and fell off the right side. Determined not to do that again, he got on the horse, leaned the other way, and promptly fell off the left side. The idea, of course, is to stay on the horse.

    I think postmodernists should be careful not to go too far in their dislike for lists. Just because there are stories in the Bible - and it is a story - doesn't mean there aren't also lists. I mean, the Ten Commandments, for Pete's sake. Also, did you notice the speaker actually cited a list (the elements of a story) and indicated they were critical to his return to faith? Lists are important, even for postmodernists.

    Also, I think there are difficulties in applying a story to one's life. I feel less certain of this because a story, as a story, can have a profound impact on people's lives, and maybe this is what postmodernists are counting on, but how do you - for example - take Jesus' short list on how to live (1. Love God, 2. Love your neighbor) and apply that to your life as a story. It's a list, dogone it! And it needs to be treated as such.

    But the thing I find most scary is the notion (which I do not believe was shared by the speaker and hopefully is not shared by most postmodernists) that truth is something to be held lightly. Certainly there are debatable topics within Christianity, and I don't want to confuse peripheral issues with core issues, but I don't think that saying, "Well, I kinda believe in God for now," cuts it. When I hear something like that I think of James' condemnation (James 1:6-8) of those who are blown and tossed by the wind, who are double-minded and unstable.

    Wednesday, July 14, 2004

    Cornerstone Festival

    I mentioned earlier that I went to the Cornerstone Festival in Illinois in early July. The large (25,000 people?), four-day Christian festival is held near Bushnell (a very small town) and features alternative (read "very hard") rock music with a major punk emphasis. While not my style, I was impressed by one of the bands, called Kutless. Quite hard, but if you like your music that way, very good. I also liked one of the small-stage bands, a world music group called Madison Greene. The one rap group at the festival, called Grits, was also very good. Amazingly, it was one of the softer toned groups at the fest.

    For most of the time, I wore my earplugs, and felt a bit out of fashion until I saw a guy with a felt marker stuck through his earlobe who also had earplugs in. Then I felt right in style.

    The son of the friend who invited me, a great Christian kid, really liked the harder stuff, including the mosh pits. He explained to me the difference between a Christian mosh pit and a non-Christian one: In a Christian mosh pit, he said, they don't hit you as hard and they help you up if they knock you down. Hmmm. I really have to think about that one.

    Anyway, aside from music, there was an art festival and some rather academic lectures by various speakers, well known and otherwise. I attended a session on Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. Whoda thunk you'd find lectures on those guys at a Christian festival - and they were packed, standing room only. The lecturer bent over (too far) backwards to be fair to these guys, but I didn't warm up to either of them - especially not the Christian-hating Nietzsche.

    Though the music was not my style, and I don't wear my hair spiked, I did not at all feel intimidated. In fact, I felt oddly at home, because the spirit - music and mosh pits notwithstanding - was gentle and kind.

    Sunday, July 11, 2004

    Coffee Outreach

    I recently got back from the Cornerstone Festival in northern Illinois. It's a four-day Christian music and teaching festival featuring mostly very hard rock bands. Not at all my style (though clearly it was other people's style). One thing that struck me (I'll have some more comments over the next few days) was a coffee shop.

    It was in a tent (like everything else) and was called Alliance World Coffees, from Muncie, Indiana. My friend (with whom I attended the concert) and I got talking with one of the employees of the shop, and it turns out that this coffee shop is an outreach of the Muncie Alliance Church.

    The idea is to open coffee shops in various cities and then have Bible studies in the evenings, and from those studies eventually form churches. Pretty cool idea!

    Saturday, June 26, 2004

    Outreach By Hobby

    I was just visiting a friend in Central California who told me about his church. Sounds like a nice church, in general, but what really struck me was that it has what you might call outreach-by-hobby.

    The specific example he gave me was that the church sponsors a quilting group. By way of contrast, my church has support groups for people going through various kinds of trials: a cancer support group; a parents of ADD children group, etc. That's good, but this is a great addition. Not everybody is going through a trial for which they need support, but there are lots of people who have hobbies they'd like to share: quilting, bike riding, bridge, woodworking, model railroading, cooking, kite flying, scuba diving, painting, camping, and a thousand others.

    When I heard about the church-sponsored quilting group, it occurred to me how much easier it would be to invite someone with a common interest to a group that shares that interest, rather than inviting them to church, which may be for many an alien and intimidating environment.

    I think it would be great for churches to sponsor as many of these hobby groups as there are knowledgeable and competent church members to lead them, and for which the church can provide a solid core of members.

    But how can these groups be a stepping stone to faith? Well, the church could let hobby groups meet in its facilities, thus making the church building a little more familiar and a little less intimidating to newcomers. Also, the hobby groups could start with a prayer. But most importantly, as the Christian members interact among themselves in a godly manner, and as they show kindness and develop friendships with the non-Christian members of the group, I think opportunities to share Christ or to invite people to church would naturally and comfortably arise.

    Sunday, June 06, 2004

    Unrequested Advice for Grads

    Not that anybody asked me, but I'm going to give a word of advice to college and high school grads from someone who has been out of college and high school longer than he cares to mention and has made the mistake he doesn't want you to make. Here's my one bit of advice:

    Don't loose track of your friends!

    I know you think you'll stay in touch, but things happen, you get busy, and probably you'll slip. People will move and forget to let you know, or get married and change their names. So, in addition to getting their current email address, phone and mailing address, learn your friend's parents' names, address and phone number (parents are a bit more settled and less apt to move around). Learn your friends' full names. Is it Kim or Kimberly or Kimberlee? What are their middle names? (Believe me, it's a lot easier to find a John Danforth Smith than it is to find a John Smith). Then sign up with something like

    In 10 or 15 years you may be very glad you did this.

    Tuesday, June 01, 2004

    Christian Community Service

    When I was in college I was part of a campus ministry similar to Campus Crusade for Christ. Overall, it was pretty great, but when I got out of college ... nothing. Well, not really nothing. I became part of a good church, but I miss the fellowship and focus of an outwardly-focused organization devoted to bringing Christ to the world.

    So I think it would be great if there was a non-denominational organization devoted to 1) Christian growth, 2) mutual support, and 3) local community service - kind of a cross between Campus Crusade and the Lions Club.

    Christian Community Service (or whatever it's called) could be a regular dues-paying club that meets once a week for lunch or dinner at a restaurant. There would be teaching, prayer and fellowship, and members would help each other out in times of need. Then, every month or three, CCS would have a community work day. It would arrange with the local parks department to plant flowers at a park, or with the school district to paint classrooms at a local school, or with other local service organizations to do repair work at low income homes. It could raise money to provide scholarships to students from the local high school or to buy playground equipment. The object of these good works - aside from the obvious one of benefitting the community - would be to get Christians out, mingling as Christians with their neighbors and other members of the community, creating friendships with non-Christians, showing love to the community, and hopefully, providing opportunities to share about Christ.

    Friday, May 28, 2004

    Bible Updating

    I have several friends and acquaintences who are missionaries around the world, some of whom are involved in Bible translation, and a few of them involved in Bible updating, which, oddly, seems to be kind of new ground.

    The premier Bible translation organization is Wycliffe Bible Translators, which is working hard to translate the Bible into languages that have never had it.

    But where is the organization devoted to Bible updating? From what I've heard, some of the translations in use around the world now sound absurdly old-fashioned, and therefore don't communicate well with their intended audience.

    A while ago I found an old Wycliffe handbook about Bible translation. To a layman's eye, it seemed like good stuff, though it was an old book, so it was a bit out of date. I'm sure Wycliffe now has more up-to-date versions.

    That's great, but where is the handbook on Bible updating?

    I'm not at all suggesting Wycliffe change it's approach; what it's doing is vital. What I'm thinking is that maybe there needs to be an organization with the expertise that Wycliffe has, but for updating Bibles. There needs to be an organization to set good standards for updating, and an organization that keeps electronic copies of the new translations as backups. (The first step in updating seems frequently to be keying the old translation into the computer. That's understandable, but it would be a serious mistake to have to do that twice.)

    Just a thought...

    Thursday, May 20, 2004

    Keeping the Faith

    I'm really impressed with Ahmer Khokhar, the man profiled in this article. The pressure he overcame to become - and remain - a Christian are an inspiration to me. On the other hand, the casual "whatever works for you" attitude of some Christians depicted in the article discourage me. Maybe he has paid a price for his faith and holds it dear, while they have paid no price for it, and treat it like an old dishcloth.

    Saturday, May 15, 2004

    Squares and Odd Shapes

    I just finished an excellent book called Measuring America, by Andro Linklater. It's hard to believe a book about surveying and measurement could be fascinating, but it was. The book, which actually included a lot of information about measurement in Europe, makes the very interesting point that the way land was divided in the northern and western U.S. states was one of the main reasons for the great economic growth of those areas, while the different way it was divided in the southern states hindered economic growth.

    In the North it was divided into (with some sloppy exceptions) exact six-mile squares, while in the South it was cut up any which way depending on what land a purchaser wanted to buy. This, of course, was harder to survey, and thus more prone to mistakes, and for that reason there have been unending and expensive boundary disputes in the southern states.

    Lots more good stuff, but that's a taste.

    Sunday, May 02, 2004

    Analog vs Digital

    I recently bought a watch. My old digital kept resetting itself to midnight, January 1.

    I'm kind of out of it, fashion wise, but what struck me while shopping was the large number of analog (big hand, little hand) watches that are available. I bought one, which kind of surprised me.

    As I think about why I chose analog over digital, I think part of the reason is nostalgia, but there are other, more practical reasons. I wonder if the precision of digital watches (It's nine fifty seven and twenty seconds, a.m.) had become a bit annoying. Analogs are a bit more casual. More relaxed. You can certainly read them with about as much precision as a digital, but it's a trifle more difficult. Instead of saying it's nine fifty seven, I find myself thinking, "It's about 10 o'clock." I think the reason for this is you can actually see the hands approaching the hour mark, which you don't see with digitals.

    Another even more practical benefit is the ease of setting analogs. Pull the stem out, twist, then push the stem back in. That's it! For years, every time I wanted to set my digital, I had to read the instructions: Press button A to enter time-set mode, be careful not to enter chronograph mode, press button B and then button C until the right number is showing and be careful not to go past it because it doesn't go backwards. Press, press, press until your finger is sore.

    Welcome back, analog!

    Saturday, May 01, 2004

    Google, Dieters and Carrots

    I read with great interests, as I'm sure a lot of people did, the news that Google plans an initial public offering. One of the somewhat odd things they're doing is refusing to predict results on a quarterly basis. I think that's wise and I hope other companies take their lead.

    Google co-founder Larry Page wrote in a "Letter from the Founders" included in the company's filing with the SEC, that, "A management team distracted by a series of short-term targets is as pointless as a dieter stepping on a scale every half hour."

    Hmm. While I like the sentiment, I think Page's dieter analogy isn't quite strong enough. I prefer this one, which I heard in relation to growing in the Christian life, but I think applies equally well here. So let me re-craft Page's analogy it its image:

    "A management team distracted by a series of short-term targets is as bad as a gardener who pulls up his carrots every day to see how they're growing."

    I think this analogy makes clear that it's not just distracting and a waste of time, but positively unhealthy.

    Wednesday, April 21, 2004

    Prayer Ads

    Quite a while ago I went to a church because I saw it's ad in the newspaper and I happened to be looking for a church. When I told someone there I came because of the ad, he was astonished. Nobody had every come before because of the ad. While I'm sure some people do pick a church from an ad, I doubt that very many do. While this might suggest that churches simply should not run newspaper ads, I think before they stop they ought to give it another try - but do it differently, with a bit more creativity, and a bit more committment behind it.

    What if a church ran an ad something like this:

    It is nothing but an offer to pray. Readers don't have to come to the church or do anything except let the church know what they would like prayed for. For that reason alone I think an ad like this might be attractive. But also, I think all the white space in the ad - in addition to being practical - would grab the eye. Finally, this ad requires a reliable prayer team at the church that will take the requests seriously. Otherwise it would just be a bad joke.

    Sunday, April 18, 2004

    The Missing Art

    The pastor of my church believes in the arts. Painting, sculpture, film, music, literature, drama, and so forth. They can all be used to glorify God. And I certainly agree that they can, and I welcome the church's renewed interest in the arts.

    But of all the arts that the church promotes, the really obvious one seems to have eluded it (or maybe I've just missed it). This is an art form that has been associated with the church for not just years or decades, but probably for well over a thousand years.

    Stained glass.

    The great churches I've visited in Europe are filled with stained glass. Many traditional American churches also use stained glass.

    It seems to me that the association of church with stained glass gives the church in the West a platform.

    Why shouldn't churches sponsor stained glass art festivals? A stained glass festival could feature local stained-glass artists, speakers, demonstrations of stained-glass technique, history of stained glass (which would present plenty of opportunities to discuss Christianity), tours of the sponsoring church's stained glass windows (which probably feature biblical themes and could be used as a bridge to explain the gospel). Plus, the whole event would lend itself to local press coverage and raise the church's profile in the community.

    I doubt any of this is world-changing, but for some people it could be life changing.

    [Update: Dr. William N. Brown sent me a great link to an article on his Web site about a friend who does some amazing stained glass work in China]

    Sunday, April 04, 2004

    No Problem with Bunnies, But...

    It's getting near Easter, and bunnies are rampant, so I thought I'd share a non-bunny article I wrote years ago. You know how Christmas has a lot of Christian symbols? So why not Easter? Why is it just bunnies and eggs? So here's my Better Easter Tradition.

    Thursday, March 25, 2004

    Israeli Restraint

    Something that really bothers me in the discussion I hear about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is this sort of "they're both equally bad" attitude. I just can't understand that attitude.

    This is what would make the two sides equally bad: If the Palestinians blew up a bus filled with unarmed Israeli civilians (men, women and children) and then in retaliation the Israelis dropped a bomb on a marketplace filled with unarmed Palestinian men, women and children. That would be close to equivalent, but not quite since the one who started it is more to blame.

    But I'm not seeing that. When Palestinian terrorists blow up buses, I see the Israelis trying to attack just the terrorists. I see restraint in the face of the most brutal provocation.

    Saturday, March 20, 2004

    Europeans and Cowboys

    The latest disagreements between the U.S. and Europe remind me of how some Europeans think they can insult Americans. They call us "cowboys."

    I've never really figured this one out, and it suggests to me a real ignorance of American culture.

    What's weird about the insult is that the mythology of cowboys in America is very positive. The cowboy is a tough man who can make it on his own in the wild, he's a hard worker, he loves the outdoors and horses, he has a straightforward sense of justice, he's honest, he treats women with respect, he's polite in an unaffected way, he panders to nobody, he's cool under pressure, and he's a man of few words but strong actions.

    Granted that real cowboys probably didn't (and don't) often live up to this ideal, but it's the ideal we Americans have in our heads, and its really hard for us to feel insulted when we're accused of being cowboys. We're more likely to be secretly flattered, even if we know it is intended as a put-down.

    Tuesday, March 16, 2004

    Pray for Denmark

    As I mentioned earlier, a friend and I have started a little Web page called Pray for Denmark, a site for those who want to pray that Jesus will revive his church in that land. It's pretty rudimentary at the moment. We'll have a better design and more pages shortly, but we wanted to get it up and running. Stop by and visit, and say a prayer. Thanks!

    Saturday, March 06, 2004

    What's the Problem?

    Something I am trying to figure out in the current uproar about homosexuals wanting to be married is this: What do they gain from it? What rights are they being denied?

    Inheritance? I don't think so. Homosexuals can leave their belongings to whomever they please, just as everybody else can.

    Insurance? This is a matter for employers and insurance companies. Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't know that there are any laws that require companies to offer insurance at all; or if they do offer it, that it needs to cover spouses.

    Taxes? Not exactly my area of expertise, but for a while there were complaints about the "marriage penalty," because married couples actually paid more taxes than two singles.

    Maybe there is some material loss homosexuals suffer from not being able to marry, but if so, I'd like to know what it is. And if it exists, I'd like to know why it couldn't be corrected by simply changing the relevant law or laws.

    Unless I can be convinced that homosexuals suffer some specific, material loss that can't be corrected by narrowly aimed legislation, but only by marriage, then I have to think that the whole movement for homosexual marriage is simply an effort to dilute the meaning of marriage.

    What I mean is this: If marriage is not just between one man and one woman, but can also be between two men or two women, then by what logic can it even be limited to that? Why can't three men and a woman be "married?" Why can't polygamy be considered a legitimate form of marriage? Why can't a whole frat house be married? If "marriage" means any living arrangement among human beings, then marriage means nothing.

    Tuesday, March 02, 2004

    Geneva Collars

    A friend recently wrote me about some people he knows who have left evangelical churches to join more traditional churches, such as Lutheran and Orthodox churches. I don't know that there is a flood of this going on, but I would certainly say it's a trend.

    I wonder if the reason is that there is a longing for structure. When I became a Christian (early 70s) there was a lot of rebellion against authority and its structures. The cry was that, "Jesus can set you free." Now, I think that longing for freedom has spent itself, possibly because there don't seem to be a lot more freedoms to get. I think people are free to do just about anything they please, including - they percieve - in their Christian lives. Perhaps now people are missing a sense of structure, and insofar as churches have structure - and I think more ritualistic churches at least appear to have it - they will attract people. Maybe it's time to bring back the black robes, Geneva collars and candles.

    Friday, February 27, 2004

    A Mini Review of The Passion

    I've just seen The Passion of the Christ and it is a powerful retelling of the Gospel account of Jesus' death. No surprise endings; no car chases; no nonsense. Its affect on me is to make me think of how much Jesus gave for me and this makes me so grateful.

    Also, I have to warn any anti-semites out there that they're going to be deeply disappointed if they go to this movie expecting it to be some sort of slam against Jews. It ain't. And as for violence, I kind of wonder what people who go to a movie about the scourging and crucifiction of Jesus expect to see. Shirley Temple doing a little dance number? I mean, duh. Having said that, though, the violence is not over the top. It is appropriate for the topic and probably a lot more moderate than the violence in other films that critics have just yawned at.

    Go see it if you haven't.

    Tuesday, February 24, 2004

    Exit Polling

    I had a few minutes free today and spent those minutes at Google News repeatedly refreshing the page and looking at new stories about the Passion movie appear almost every minute. There were apparently some early screenings and I was interested to read what people had to say as they came out of the theaters. They didn't say, "It was the Jews fault." Instead, they were all saying things like, It was my fault, or it was our fault, or it was all of our fault. And if that's what people are coming away with, I think the movie is hitting the nail on the head. My sin put Jesus on the cross. He died for me, to take the penalty of my sin upon himself, and I can never repay it. I can only say, Thank you, Jesus!

    Thursday, February 19, 2004

    Pray for Denmark, Etc.

    A friend approached me the other day with an idea he believes God laid upon his heart - to create a Web site to encourage people of Danish ancestry to pray for Denmark. He's of Danish descent, as am I, so I agreed to help out. There's really nothing at the Web site yet, but it'll be at when its ready.

    The reason I'm talking about this is not to promote the site - which is, as I said, pretty much blank - but because it occurred to me that this could be a model for similar Web sites.

    Why shouldn't all ethnic groups (particularly in the United States, which is almost entirely made up of immigrants or immigrants' descendents) have Web sites to promote prayer and missions work for their ancestral homes? Why not have a PrayForGermany site, or a PrayForItaly or PrayForJapan web site? Why shouldn't Danes take it upon themselves to pray for Denmark, Chinese to pray for China, Mexicans to pray for Mexico, and so forth?

    Saturday, February 14, 2004

    Protestant Catholics?

    I was chatting with a Catholic friend about the movie The Passion. I mentioned that it strikes me as odd that the main base of support for the movie appears to be evangelical churches. What's odd about this is that I haven't heard of similar support by Roman Catholic churches. I mean, Mel Gibson is a Catholic, so why isn't the Catholic church behind him to the hilt?

    My Catholic friend replied that the reason the Protestants are providing a better support base is that they are better organized than the Catholics. This struck me as a pretty weird since Protestants have no central leadership and the Catholic church does. Why, I asked, doesn't some bishop pound his desk and just say, "Get cracking on this!"?

    Well, he thinks the bishops aren't very interested in promoting what Gibson is doing. I wondered if that might be because Gibson belongs to a traditionalist Catholic congregation which practices the Latin mass, which is really not what the Catholic church officially does any more. Perhaps that is why the church hierarchy feels uncomfortable with Gibson. He agreed.

    That, in turn, got me to thinking about the traditionalist Catholic churches. Though I'm sure they wouldn't see it in this light, it seems they are almost Protestant in their refusal to go along with the modern mass, which, to my understanding, is the direction set by the church hierarchy and the Pope. Since one of the main facets of the Reformation was the rejection of the Pope as the final authority, the traditionalists (oddly) appear to be doing precisely this -- denying the authority of the Catholic church, and ultimately of the Pope,

    But take this with a grain of salt. What I know of the Catholic Church is pretty limited, so I may just be talking through my hat.

    Saturday, February 07, 2004

    Which Is Most Effective?

    On most pages of my Web site I have links to a Web site that tells how to become a Christian. (You can see one here.) For a long time I've had these links pointing to this Four Spiritual Laws site. What I like about this site is its simplicity. It's light on graphics, so it loads quickly; it's clear and comes to the point. And besides, it is the online version of the pamphlet that led me to Christ, so I have a sentimental feeling about it.

    But as I look around, I find other sites designed to let people know how to become a Christian, and some of these are beautifully done. I just noticed this one, Who Is I Am? And this one, Who is Jesus? These are beautifully designed, and I'm sure they do a lot of good, probably answering a lot of people's questions about Jesus and hopefully moving them toward accepting Christ. But on the other hand, they're a bit heavy on graphics and rather complex. If I was interested in how to become a Christian, it's not entirely clear from a glance how I might do that.

    I wonder what you all think. Which of these types of online tract is most effective?

    Monday, February 02, 2004

    Public Baptism

    Baptism, as I understand it, is a public identification with Christ's death and resurrection, and is a symbol of his cleansing of our sins. But I think that the public part of baptism seems to be a bit overlooked, and what public-ness there is in most baptisms is almost accidental.

    I was baptized in a canal in Germany, to the amusement or confusion, I imagine, of those on the tour boat nearby. But because it was public, I think that in some small way it was a testimony to the world. But I suspect that was accidental. I think we went to the canal because the church didn't have the facilities. I imagine that is frequently the case.

    But is the public part of baptism just supposed to be public before the church, or public before the world?

    I think that generally baptisms should be public before the world, as when John and Jesus baptized in the Jordan River. The exception might be in countries where a public identification with Christ could endanger believer's lives.

    I think there are several reasons public baptism is valuable. First, as I said earlier, because it is a testimony to the unbelieving world. Just the sight of a baptism says to the world, Over there is a man or woman who believes following Christ is important.

    Second, the person being baptized often has (at least at my church) the opportunity to say a few words about how he or she became a Christian. Again, this is a testimony to the world.

    Third, this public act of faith is a milestone that the Christian can look back upon during hard times and remember. There, on that day, I stood before all those people and obeyed Christ in baptism. I'm committed. I can't turn back now.

    I'm not sure, but I wonder if the public-ness of baptism couldn't be much greater. What if baptisms were held at public pools, lakes, or at the seashore, by design, not by necessity? Or what if churches took out ads in the local paper with the picture, name and testimony of each person who was baptized?

    Just a thought...

    Sunday, February 01, 2004

    The Passion of Christ

    I'm a little bit of two minds about going to see Mel Gibson's The Passion of The Christ. On the one hand I'm impressed by the reviews and the assurance I'm hearing that it follows the biblical narrative closely. On the other hand, I am uncomfortable seeing the suffering of our Lord portrayed so forcefully, as I've heard Gibson does. I know Jesus' suffering intellectually, but I suspect seeing it portrayed with no holds barred will hit me a lot harder. But then again, being hit a lot harder would probably be a good thing for me.

    One thing that doesn't trouble me at all is the charge that the movie is anti-semitic. From everything I've heard, this charge is just nonsense. I think it was Michael Medved (a Jew) who said that some of the Jews in the movie are good guys, including Jesus himself, and some are bad guys, but all the Romans are bad guys. I guess from that you could argue that the movie is anti-gentile, or you could conclude - as Medved does - that the whole discussion is silly.

    Here are some Passion related links:
    The official movie site
    Using the movie as an outreach
    A fan site

    Saturday, January 24, 2004

    Animals in Heaven

    A while ago, my daughter, whose cat had just died, asked whether animals go to heaven.

    Hmmm. I was a bit doubtful, but instead of giving an instant answer my wife and I gave it some thought. As we studied our Bibles, we remembered that in addition to heaven, God promised to create a new earth (And what better to have on a new earth than a nice orange cat sneaking through the warm grass?), and we read that someday the lion will lie down with the lamb and eat hay (Since lambs are still on lions' afternoon snack list and hay is not, I think this refers to new and improved lions inhabiting a new and improved earth). So anyway, we're hopeful that whether there are animals in heaven, that there there will be animals on the new earth (our cats, too, we hope).

    Sunday, January 18, 2004

    Evangelism and Missions

    My church has historically had something of a focus on missions, by which I mean reaching people outside of my country with the gospel. I've really appreciated that focus.

    But I had a talk with one of the leaders of my church today, and it appears we are considering redefining "missions" as meaning reaching people with the gospel, regardless of where they live.

    In a way that sounds noble - after all, we want to reach everybody with the gospel - but it discourages me.

    If, for my church, "missions" has meant "reaching people outside of the U.S. with the gospel," and now just means, "reaching people with the gospel," then I fear we will consider we are "doing missions" if we simply reach out to our community. Being in our face, lost people nearby compel our attention much more easily than lost people hundreds or thousands of miles away, but distant people are just as real. I fear that if we don't differentiate between near and far, that people will look at the missions budget and if it is a healthy percentage of the church's budget, they'll incorrectly feel the church is doing what Jesus commanded.

    For that reason I prefer the word "evangelism" for reaching people nearby, and "missions" for reaching people far away, though some people feel if you cross cultural boundaries with the gospel, that's missions. I'm not inclined to argue that, but if people hold this view then I would insist on dividing missions into "home missions" and "foreign missions," or "A" and "B," or "cat" and "dog." I really don't care what the word is, I just want the concepts kept separate.

    Tuesday, January 13, 2004

    The Raj

    I just finished reading an interesting book by Lawrence James called Raj, The Making and Unmaking of British India, about the time of British rule in India.

    The British, starting from a trading post, acquired control of India in a higgledy-piggledy, unintentional sort of way, as a result of a mish-mash of treaties and wars, some defensive and some aggressive, and to a great extent determined by local commanders. I've heard the British acquired their empire "in a fit of absentmindedness," a description which seems to describe this situation fairly well.

    Anyway, once they acquired India, despite plenty of black marks against them, the British seemed generally quite concerned about improving it's lot. I did not read the book for inspiration, but being a Christian, this summary quote in the Epilogue about the Raj (the name for the British-Indian government) caught my eye:

    "It [the Raj] had been the most perfect expression of what Britain took to be its duty to humanity as a whole. Its guiding ideals had sprung from late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century Evangelical Enlightenment which had dreamed of a world transformed for the better by Christianity and reason. The former made little headway in India, but the later, in the form of Western education and the application of science, did."

    Thursday, January 08, 2004

    Armageddon and the Environment

    I went to lunch with some co-workers today, and one of them said that it is the Christian belief in Armageddon that is spoiling the environment. His logic was that people who believe the world is coming to an end figure they might as well grab what they can get regardless of its affect on the environment.

    Oh man! I kept quiet, but now I'm going to vent a bit.

    First, I've been a Christian for a long time and I do not recall ever hearing that argument from anybody who believes in Armageddon, so I think this theory has little if any grounding in reality.

    My strong feeling, based on my experience when I thought Armageddon was near (now I'm just not sure when it will be), is that when Christians are convinced Armageddon is near, it is far more likely to make them focus on heaven and their rewards there. After all, what's the point of grabbing a bunch of stuff that will just turn to dust in their hands? Further, Christians are encouraged to consider others more highly than themselves, and destroying the environment - and thus harming other people - is in contradiction to that, regardless of how soon Armageddon may occur. In other words, if Jesus was coming back tonight, would you want him to catch you torching someone else's house?

    Further, I can switch this theory around and make a much more plausible argument that athiesm exploits the environment. Let me give it a try.

    The athiest does not believe in God or an afterlife, therefore if he (or she) is going to get desirable things, it's gonna have to be in this life! The realization that life is temporary and there's no heaven leads athiests to try to grab all they can get regardless of its effect on the environment. Further, there are no athiest scriptures that enjoin kindness to other people, so there is no limit on their potential avarice.

    I don't know that this is true, but I suspect it has a greater probability of being true than the "Armageddon destroys the environment" argument.

    Monday, January 05, 2004


    I was watching the Rose Parade on New Year's Day and recall hearing the announcer mention that the service organization, Kiwanis, the sponsor of one float, has as its goal the elimination of a form of mental retardation caused by lack of iodine, if I recall correctly.

    This is the kind of thing that excites me: organizations that take on tasks that are tightly focused and where success is very measurable. My bet is that Kiwanis accomplishes its goal.

    This reminded me of the time I attended a meeting of The Gideons, a group of mostly businessmen, which, as you may know, has as its main goal putting Bibles in hotel and motel rooms.

    What struck me about these Gideons folks was how ordinary they are. Just regular people. But think what these ordinary folks have done! Probably most of the hotels in the world - at least most of those that are willing to accept them - have Gideons' Bibles in their rooms.

    I suppose The Gideons could have done a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and done most of it poorly, but instead - either from humility or good sense - it has focused on doing essentially one thing, and has done it remarkably well. It's a very interesting model.