Sunday, December 31, 2006

2007 Priorities

I've been pondering my priorities for 2007 during the last week or so, and for some reason my mind went back to the old musical, Godspell. I hadn't thought about it in decades. I remember the first time I saw the movie I was offended at Jesus being depicted as a clown, if I recall. But a friend urged me to see it again, so I did, and this time came away with what I believe is the correct understanding, that the clown motif was not an insult, but was a way to show Jesus in contrast to our culture.


In any case, I remembered how much I liked the Godspell music, so I downloaded the album (legally), was listening to it and was really struck by one of the songs, Day by Day, which contains these lines:
Oh Dear Lord
Three things I pray:

To see Thee more clearly
Love Thee more dearly
Follow Thee more nearly

Day by day

I think God prompted me to remember the musical and download the songs from it, because while I was wondering about my priorities I heard this song with these three prayers and instantly knew they were exactly what my "day by day" priorities should be.

Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 30, 2006


I just finished reading "Kabloona," by Gontran de Poncins. It's an excellent but old (1941) and politically incorrect account of the author's life among the Eskimo (or now, "Inuit"). The whole book is good - a bit jarring, but good - but I was particularly struck by de Poncins' account of how he decided to pick up from Paris and move to the northern reaches of Canada.

Whether it was a photograph in a shop-window that had first prompted me, or a chance remark negligently dropped in my hearing, I do not now remember nor does it much signify. I know only that some time before that spring day the word Eskimo had rung inside me and that the sound had begun to swell like the vibrations of a great bell and had eventually filled the whole of my subconscious being. I had not been possessed instantly by a conscious and urgent need to go into the Arctic and live with a primitive people. These things operate slowly, like the germ of a cancer. They brood within, they send out tentacles and grow. Their first effect is not decision but restlessness. You find yourself feeling that something is obscurely yet radically wrong with your life. You fidget. Your world becomes progressively more stuffy, less tolerable. Probably you show it, and show it unpleasantly; for your friends seem to you more and more to be talking nonsense, leading a meaningless existence, content with a frivolity and a mediocrity to which you find yourself superior. In their eyes, very likely, unbearably superior. But no matter. The thing is at work in you. Finally, there comes a moment when you waken in the middle of the night and lie still, eyes wide open in the dark. Life, you sense, is about to change. Something is about to happen. And it happens; you have made your decision.

Friday, November 24, 2006

The Rendezvous

A Christmas spy story.

Bern sat quietly on the wooden pew in the darkened church. Four advent candles in front burned steadily. Green and red holly decorated with tiny white lights hung in a chain of semi-circles from the side balconies.

He was not the first to arrive, though he had indeed arrived early. It wasn't that he was anxious to attend the service; it was just convenient. On Christmas Eve the streetcar arrived at the corner two blocks from the church at 10:17 p.m., 43 minutes early.

He had found a spot near a side aisle and pulled a Bible from the rack in front of him and placed it next to him, close enough so that it might appear that he had just laid it aside after reading it, but far enough away that it could be interpreted as a marker to save the spot next to him.

Unbuttoning his heavy coat, he waited, watching the candles and listening to the organist softly playing some melody he did not recognize. Bern was not at all religious, but still, it was beautiuful, and by contrast it made him feel dirty. Or rather, it made him feel how dirty he really was. He didn't want to be here, but this was where "Al" - or whatever his name was - wanted to meet, so he was stuck with it. Perhaps this was Al's sense of hunmor. If so, Al had a bad sense of humor.

Anyway, he thought, probably the people who would be up front were hypocrites - they all were. All their pious sermons and choir robes and candles and holly. They were probably just as bad as he was. In fact, he knew one of the people here. Kelly, for instance. He'd seen Kelly get angry. The words that came out of Kelly's mouth were all the proof as he needed that religion was worthless. Yeah, hypocrites.

It made him feel better, but, still, the church - the building, at least - was beautiful...

His thoughts turned back. He wished he had never started down this path. A thousand bucks for a damn internal email list for his company's tech group? I mean, who cares? What's the big secret? If Al was such a fool that he'd pay that much for a silly directory, well, fine, I'll take your money, idiot.

Except Al was no idiot.

Then Al asked for the names of projects his company was working on. Names! So what? Except some of the names were rather descriptive and he had been warned and had signed a non-disclosure form when he joined the company, so it made him nervous. But the money was even better, and Al was so nice and, well, it wasn't really much worse than selling the email directory. But then later Al had wanted the details of the projects, and Bern baulked. Al understood. Al was nice about it. Al said he knew it was asking a lot, and that he'd try to keep Bern out of trouble, but, well, Al's superiors wanted results, and they might tell Bern's company about him selling the directory and project names.

So he gave in. And it got worse...

The church was filling up. People walked in, unbuttoned their coats and spoke in low voices. Several people squeezed past him, a few dusting him with flakes of snow that still clung to their overcoats, but they skipped the space he had saved for Al.

Al! Where was he? Bern began to worry. But why? There was nobody in the world he wanted to see less than Al. Perhaps Al had been caught. If so they'd both be shot or something else very unpleasant. Reason enough to worry.

Then he caught a glimpse of Al, quietly took a deep breath and sighed. He casually picked up the Bible and began reading it as Al squeezed past him and took the open space. They sat, neither exchanging a glance.

As the service began, the main lights went from dim to black and all Bern could see were the candles and the hundreds of dots of white light among the holly. It was indeed beautiful.

Then they sang O Holy Night and he was bothered to find eyes moistening and his voice uneven. As he sat down he bowed his head as if to pray, and wiped his eyes.

Christmas, the pastor said, is the day we celebrate the birth of the Savior, the One who was born from God into the world to live a life utterly faithful to God, loving and true, a life that none of us, with all our flaws, has ever come close to matching.

Yeah, he sighed, well at least they admit they're as bad as I am. But knowing it gave him no satisfaction.

They had become accustomed to the darkness, and while keeping his eyes to the front, Al slipped a small square of rice paper onto the pew between them. Without looking at it Bern slowly picked it up. It was two sheets. He bowed again, as if praying about what the pastor was saying, and looked at the top sheet cupped in his hands.

It said, "Need programming code for TL730, ASAP!"

The TL730! Good God! The seaport nuclear materials detector! They could defeat the detector with that information. Why did they want that!? Oh, God! As if he didn't know.

As impassively as he could, he folded the top sheet of rice paper twice and brought his hands to his face as if to pray. Oh God! he prayed. He slipped the paper into his mouth, where it disolved. The bottom sheet was blank; Al wanted a note back.

The pencil stub in his hand froze over the rice paper, laying on the Bible in his lap.

Christmas, the pastor continued, led to Easter, which makes the story complete. Christ didn't become the Savior by being born, but by dying in our place for all our wrongs; for taking our penalty; for paying our debt.

Al glanced his way.

Finally Bern wrote: "Can't."

Al looked at the paper.

The pastor continued: So through Christ, he said, we can have forgiveness! Freedom from all the ugly things we've ever done that cling to us like leeches! Just say yes to God! Yes! God, I have done evil and I need the forgiveness you are offering to me through Christ! Pray that now!

Al had slipped another sheet onto the pew, but Bern hadn't noticed it. Al nudged him once, and then again.

Bern picked up the paper. "How much time do you need?"

Bern paused, then turned to Al.

"I'm not doing it," he said aloud, "not now or ever."

People glanced uncomfortably at him. If he didn't want to give his heart to God, well, okay, but did he need to announce it during the service?

Al looked frightened, then glanced to his left as if to see if Bern was speaking to the next person over.

As the service ended, the pastor invited those who had prayed to come forward to talk to him.

The row of people filed out towards the center aisle, with Al just in front of Bern.

As they came to the aisle, Al turned toward the back of the church, but Bern paused. He had sold so much information; secrets that would cause so many deaths.

People backed up behind him. But still he paused. Then he turned toward the front of the church. Al glanced back, paused for a moment, then ran for the exit.

If his debt to God was paid, Bern thought, his debt to his country was not. That, he sighed, would be coming soon.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Slow Miracles

Maybe miracles are more common than we assume.

Usually when I think of miracles, I think of amazing, jaw-dropping affairs, but for some reason - perhaps because I recently wrote about faith uprooting mulberry trees - something came back to me that a friend brought up at a fellowship meeting in college; something you don't often hear about.

He noted that in Deuteronomy 8:4 God told the Israelites that during their 40 years in the desert their clothing hadn't worn out. I wonder, when God told the Israelites that, if they said, "Well how about that! I hadn't thought of that before, but yes, it's true!"

The preservation of clothing is just not the sort of thing that you'd notice - or believe - unless you deliberately look back over a long period of time. For example, if God started preserving people's clothing on Monday and on Tuesday someone said that God was miraculously preserving their clothes, I'm sure everybody else would have glanced at their clothes, and then back at the speaker, then thought, "This guy is a nut."

But that's what interests me about this miracle; there was nothing at all dramatic about it, nothing to draw attention to itself. It's a humble miracle. In fact, I find it hard to imagine a miracle more mundane than people's clothing lasting far longer than you'd ever expect in a camping environment.

I was tempted to call this miracle "boring," but I can't do that because its very mundane nature is the exciting part! I've sometimes regretted that I've never seen a miracle, but now I wonder: Have there been slow miracles in my life - or your life - things God is doing or has done that we have overlooked because they have been so quiet and gentle and slow and we have been too busy and preoccupied to think back over the years?

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Scary New Atheism

The latest Wired Magazine has a very interesting article on the "new atheism," and while I can't figure out how it differs from the old atheism, the essay was quite good. Writer Gary Wolf, an athiest himself, was brave and honest enough to ask some hard questions of today's leading atheists.

Let me look at just two of the people he interviews, but really, the article is worth reading in its entirety.

First he talks with Richard Dawkins.

"Dawkins," he writes, "does not merely disagree with religious myths. He disagrees with tolerating them."

Wolf quotes Dawkins as saying, "It is one thing to say people should be free to believe whatever they like, but should they be free to impose their beliefs on their children? Is there something to be said for society stepping in?"

It appears Dawkins backpedals a bit from that rather totalitarian statement, perhaps after being challenged, but - YOW! - I really don't want to hear any more tripe from atheists complaining that it's Christians who want to impose their views on the world. Those Christians who would like to impose a theocracy are a tiny, virtually unknown, minority. Dawkins, on the other hand, is the leading light in atheistic circles. I'd suggest atheists clean up their own house before criticizing us.

Later, Wolf interviews Daniel Dennett, who has just been asked to write an essay on human dignity, and he's finding it to be a tough task. Wolf writes that Dennett can't find a solution to ethical problems using reason alone, so Dennett's solution is for people to just mindlessly keep their inherent sense of ethics - their "default settings," as he puts it - without thinking about them. In fact, Dennett says, "We could have a rational policy not even to think about such things."

What garbage! And Wolf will have none of it.

"On the one hand," Wolf writes, "he [Dennett] aggressively confronts the faithful, attacking their sacred beliefs. On the other hand, he proposes that our inherited defaults be put outside the limits of dispute. But this would make our defaults into a religion, unimpeachable and implacable gods."


But Dennett, Wolf adds, is willing to make an exception so that "philosophers" would be exempt from these default moral values.

Ah. I see. So "philosophers" would be exempt from the morality Dennett would require the rest of us adhere to. Philosophers would be allowed (by whom?) to lie and cheat and murder and rape and steal and enslave and destroy and do medical experiments on unwilling subjects and kick cats and anything else that their truth-loving little philosophical hearts desire.

I don't find this freedom that Dennett would grant to "philosophers" very comforting.

Also, I find it interesting that while atheists can't find any grounds for moral belief - as Dennett demonstrates - they somehow manage to fervently hold the moral belief that religion is evil. For people who claim to be logical, this seems to be a fairly serious lapse.

Anyway, I thought Wolf did a good, honest job. I don't know if he would consider that a compliment since atheists have no logical reason for thinking honesty is any better than dishonesty, but I think he is a man who is better than his atheistic beliefs.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Moving Mulberry Trees

I've always found Jesus' remark in Luke 17:6 fascinating. He said that, "If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it will obey you."

This, of course, sounds like a very useful thing, especially if you are in the tree removal business, but despite an experimental prayer - experimental since I don't really need any trees moved into the ocean - the tree I prayed for remained in place. And a very good thing, on reflection, since is was not my tree I was praying about. Bad me.

But anyway, then I was discouraged. Clearly I didn't even have that tiny bit of faith Jesus says is necessary to move trees.

But when I went back and read the passage more carefully I found I was foolishly adding something that didn't belong. I was incorrectly understanding the passage to say: "Work hard building up your faith and someday when it's really strong then you can use it to uproot mulberry trees."


As I understand it now, Jesus wasn't telling the apostles that they needed more faith, but was simply saying what he said, that if you have enough faith then the tree will move. And if you don't, it won't. There may be cases when God gives you enough faith that your prayer will be answered with a miracle; in other cases he will not give you that level of faith. So relax (I'm talking to myself especially) and don't try to juice up your faith by furrowing your eyebrows and squinting really hard.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Creating A Happy Workplace

I was reminded recently of that old story about the man who asks two guys working in a quarry what they're doing. One man said, "I'm making rocks square." The other man, who was doing the same thing, said, "I'm building a cathedral." The moral, of course, is to be like the second man with the big vision.

True, true...

But what occurred to me is that sometimes employers don't bother to let their employees in on the big picture. It's as if the boss told the two men in the quarry nothing more than, "Make these rocks square," but gave them no idea that by doing so they were contributing to the construction of a magnificent cathedral. In this case, you don't have one man with a problem, you have two men with a problem; two men who can't see beyond the tedium of their jobs. And in this case it's not their fault at all.

Over the years I've worked at and with a number of companies, large and small, and have occasionally even written company newsletters, and I think that the morale at companies where people at the bottom of the organization understand what is going on at the top are much happier places.

Let me illustrate. Suppose you are a sports fan but the only information you are given about your team is that it won or lost its last game. You can't listen to the game in your car or watch it on TV and you certainly can't attend the game. Wouldn't that take all the spice out of the sport for you?

And while I'm exaggerating to make my point, I think that a lot of companies essentially do that. They don't tell the troops what the leadership has in mind or where the company is going, or the challenges or opportunities ahead, they just tell people what to do - without context. I believe a lot of company leaders think that "communicating" means to let people know when the company picnic will be held. In fact, I have even seen press releases sent out and published in the national media before the employees were even aware of the information. Hello?

So my advice to company presidents and CEOs is this: Tell your employees everything you can about what's going on at the company, and if there are some things you can't tell them, tell them that item is a secret. Your employees are probably on your side - at least initially - and they want the company to succeed. They want to feel they are part of a team, not just making square rocks. They want to hear that, "We're negotiating with a large Japanese electronics company - I can't tell you who just now - but it could be huge and I thought you'd like to know," or that, "We're going to be facing some really tough times. Our competitor has just unveiled a new widget that both vacuums and makes coffee, and we'll need to respond by doing A, B, and C."

If you don't do this, people will come to realize that there is a caste system at your company; those who know what's happening and those who are left in the dark. They'll understand that there have to be some secrets, but let this division become commonplace and you'll create a lot of unhappy people.

Now, I mentioned that this advice is for presidents and CEOs. Not exclusively, of course, but mainly. Why? Because it is a task your middle managers almost certainly won't do well. The reason is that middle managers are afraid they'll get in trouble for saying something they weren't supposed to say, so they'll lean toward keeping even perfectly harmless information secret. Sometimes they even know the information is harmless but keep it secret anyway because "people wouldn't really be interested in that." (Yes, I've heard that many times, even when I knew it was interesting information.)

So anyway, you need to set the example! Send your thoughts out to everybody in the company on a regular basis (I'd recommend every other week) by email or on paper, and in company meetings talk in as much detail as you can about what's happening. I think you'll create a much happier workplace.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Recruiting for the Choir

I would guess that recruiting for a church choir can be a fairly difficult task, so I was interested in something the choir director at our church did recently.

Just before the service began and before the choir was in place, he said to the congregation:

"If any of you has ever wondered what it would be like to sing in the choir, just come on up - right now - and give it a try."

At the same time he invited the regular choir members - who were not wearing their robes that Sunday - to also come up. Lots of people came forward, many of them the regulars but apparently lots of others as well. And because nobody was wearing robes you couldn't tell the regulars from the visitors, which I'm sure made it quite comfortable for those who were just trying it out.

After the service I guess he must have invited the new people to come to a practice, or to join the choir, or something, because last Sunday there were a lot more choir members.

Anyway, I was impressed that he found a clever way to give people a quick and easy way to give the choir a try, and I thought it was an idea worth passing along.

Friday, October 20, 2006

No Faith, No Science; Know Faith, Know     Science

I just saw the cover of the latest Wired magazine on the newsstand (I subscribe, but they deliver it there first. Grrr.). Anyway, the main story was about "new atheists" who reject faith and only accept science.

This is really rather laughable because all human knowledge - science included - is ultimately based on faith.

Let's visit Alvin Atheist for a minute. Alvin thinks he's faith-free, but he is seriously kidding himself. For example:

- Alvin gets out of bed believing, but with no proof, that his clock is telling the right time.
- He takes a drink from the tap on faith that the water department has kept it pure.
- He eats a bowl of cereal on faith, trusting that General Mills followed sanitary processing procedures.
- He takes a bus to work, having faith that the mechanic has kept it in good order and the bus driver knows how to drive.
- He looks through his microscope, trusting that it does what the manufacturer promises and that what he sees is valid.
- For lunch his colleagues take him to a sushi restaurant and for the first time in his life, despite his nervousness, he has raw fish, because his friends tell him it's good, and he accepts their word on faith.

This is too easy. I could go on all day.

But that's not fair! Alvin says.

He says he has long experience with his clock being right. It blinks '12:00' when it's not. He's had lots of drinks from the tap and lots of cereal from the box and he's ridden the bus for years, and they've all worked the way he expected, and he's used his microscope for years and it's always worked fine. And as for sushi, well, government agencies using scientific methods have determined that, handled properly, sushi is fine.

These things, he says, have been generally proven.

Not so. What (if anything) has been proven is that things have happened in a particular way in the past. But it has not been proven that things will happen the same way in the future. Alvin may be confident that when he opens his cereal box tomorrow he will find Cheerios rather than a racoon, but he has not proven this. He is exercising faith, pure and simple.

But let's take this a step deeper.

Alvin's remembrance of these things (clocks, cereal, microscopes, sushi and what not) also show that Alvin has faith in the workings of his mind. He can't prove that his memories of these things are true and not just hallucinations; he accepts it purely by faith. The thousand times he has found his clock to be right may be a false memory.

But for Alvin to come to any conclusion about anything, he has to believe that the universe is really remarkably consistent and rational, and that his mind, despite whatever little glitches it may have, is generally pretty good at remembering correctly and properly analyzing situations.

Now I don't begrudge Alvin any of this faith he has exercised (though I wonder why he calls faith illegitimate when he wallows in it daily). Like Alvin, I too believe the universe is quite rationally organized, and I too believe my mind is generally fairly good at remembering and analyzing. But there's one big difference:

I believe a rational God created a rational universe, whereas Alvin believes that some random, or irrational, or - at least - unknown, event caused a rational universe.

In short, I believe rational begat rational, and Alvin believes irrational begat rational. Hmm. I think it takes more faith to be Alvin than to be me.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Where Vultures Gather

As I was reading my Bible this morning a passage that has always baffled me suddenly became clear. As I explain it, perhaps you will say, "Well, of course! You never realized that before?"

Well, no, I never did, and because I think there may be others in my shoes, permit me to go through the passage (Matthew 24:24-28:

For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect - if that were possible.

So if anyone tells you, "There he is, out in the desert," do not go out; or, "here he is, in the inner rooms," do not believe it. For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather.

It always seemed to me that the line about vultures (which I've italicized) was pretty mysterious. I didn't see what it had to do with the rest of what Jesus was talking about.

But now, I believe I finally see it.

The carcass is a false Christ (or false prophet) and the vultures are those who gather to feed on the rotting meat he has to offer. It is a commentary on both the false Christ (one who is spiritually dead and whose message is rotten like a decaying carcass) and those who gather around him (those who enjoy his dirty message, like vultures who enjoy the taste of rotting flesh.)

To carry it just a bit further, this may also be a contrast between the true Christ and false Christs. Jesus told his disciples that he is the "bread of life" (John 6:35) and that they were to eat his flesh and drink his blood (John 6:56). In the same sense, the followers of the false Christs eat of their master, except in their case it is not a meal of life, but of death.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

How to Get Rich

I was having lunch the other day in the patio of my company when an engineer walked up and asked if he could share my table since every other table was occupied.

Sure. No problem.

Well, we got talking of this and that and somehow the conversation led up to how he occasionally has lunch with other engineers and they discuss ideas that they think would be great products.

But, he said, the ideas are almost all rejected. Sooner or later someone will always say about the idea: "Nah, that would have to be sold."

I laughed at this illustration of engineers' stereotypical distaste for the kind of pushy social interaction involved with sales, but the thought occurred to me what a huge opportunity this could be for the sales person who would like to start his or her own company.

So here's the secret: Turn off your overbearing social charm and get to know the engineers at your company; the working ones right down at the bottom. Hang around with them; go to lunch, let them do most of the talking, listen to their ideas, and if you don't get it, ask them to explain what they mean. They're smart and generally nice people who, while they may not always suffer fools gladly and may not always express themselves tactfully, frequently enjoy explaining topics involving their expertise and are pleased when others are interested.

So, if my point isn't obvious yet, what I'm suggesting is that you and an engineer with a great idea might make an awesome team and might build a fine company that makes a great product.

By the way, did I mention that you need to turn off your overbearing social charm?

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Frankincense and Computers

I was reading the book of Revelation in the Bible this morning and came upon the passage about the destruction of Babylon (Rev. 18:11-13), which says "the merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her" because nobody is buying their products, which include gold, silver, precious stones, pearls, linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth, citron wood, articles of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron, marble, plus cinnamon and spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, olive oil, flour, wheat, cattle, sheep, horses and carriages, and the "bodies and souls of men."

For a passage about a prophesy that hasn't yet come to pass, I thought that list of merchandise sounded rather outdated. What about automobiles and DVD players and computers and television sets and so forth? We have those things now, so presumably the people in the last days will also have those things, or some better equivalent. Didn't God know about modern inventions when this passage was written?

Yeah, sure he did! The problem was that my perspective - as I began thinking about it - was just too self-centered. The Bible was written not just for me but for people across a huge (in human terms) span of time, and the mention of television sets, for example, would be incomprehensible for people just decades ago, not to mention a thousand years ago.

But on the flip side, the mention of linen and olive oil and cattle and so forth is completely comprehensible to us, and while some of these products may be old fashioned to us, we still know what they are, and if we don't (what is citron wood, anyway?) well, we can look them up.

In other words, God made it so people in years past could understand this passage, and so people today and tomorrow can understand it.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Downtown Los Angeles

I was called for jury duty last week and had to spend a couple days in downtown Los Angeles. During some of the breaks I wandered around town a bit and was reminded of why I almost never go into LA.

I don't mean to be harsh toward the city. It's a huge expanse and I know there are some lively and interesting areas of LA, but the Downtown (by which I mean the area in and around City Hall) is ratty and uninviting, though up the hill (on Hill Street) it is nice and uninviting. I mean, this is one of the most important cities in not just the United States, but in the world, and at its heart it is pretty much a disgrace.

If I may for a moment treat Downtown as a seperate entity from the rest of sprawling LA, I'd say it seems to be just a commuter zone. For example, I was looking for a place to have lunch and asked a woman on the street where I might find a restaurant.

"You like Mexican?" she asked.

"Sure," I said.

Well, she walked with me all the way to Olivera Street, about five blocks away. It was one of the few lively spots I found in the area, and the whole of Olivera Street is tiny, not to mention being quite a distance from all the big office buildings and across a grubby freeway overpass. (When I got back to the courtroom I heard another juror say that he went on what sounded like an even longer hike to find a restaurant.)

Anyway, as we were walking along this woman mentioned she lived in Corona.

Corona!? Ouch! What a nasty, long commute!

But that is the impression I got about the whole Downtown, that few if any of the office workers live nearby and that the place is probably pretty abandoned at night.

The area is covered with huge full-block buildings - mostly government - that you clearly don't go into unless you have business there. You can walk for long stretches and encounter no openings for people, just monolithic walls with the occasional vehicle service entrance and locked doorway decorated with yellowing sheets of newspaper. It seems that whatever life there is in Downtown is inside these huge buildings, but get out on the street and it's dead. Unless you're outside at the beginning or ending of the work day, or at noon, you can walk blocks and blocks and seldom pass more than a few people per block, most of them apparently homeless (and nothing against them; they provide what little life there is on the streets).

Don't get me wrong. Some of the buildings in the Downtown are beautiful (though others are gag ugly) with nice grass areas, and there are pretty parks - which appear generally abandoned, even at lunch time. So where are the people?

Well, one day at lunch I found quite a few of people - underground. There is a "mall" that is below ground level. It features a set of not-impressive-but-okay fast-food outlets, most of them apparently independent. The mall has a tiny sign at the top of the stairway going down, as if the city sort of reluctantly realizes that people need to eat but is embarassed that anything so crass as a commercial establishment should mar the solemn grandure of massed government buildings.

As I walked around Downtown I found weed and trash covered lots, places where it stinks (literally), blackened chewing gum spotting the sidewalks (all over), poor quality repairs that have been made to concrete sidewalks using asphalt, broken concrete that was unrepaired (even with asphalt), boarded up and run-down businesses. And yes, there are a few interesting spots (a seafood mall, for example), but the overall impression is one of sad, dirty dullness.

Someone will mention that if you go west a bit, up the hill, on the appropriately named Hill Street, there is where it becomes elegant. True, but it is a dreary sort of elegance. The Disney Concert Hall, the other concert facilities and the cathedral are attractive, but they are also just more block-square monoliths, though I did see some attractive condos or apartments being built (more on that in a moment).

One of the main points advanced by Jane Jacobs - a brilliant analyst of city life - is that what makes a big city lively and safe is mixed uses, which ensures there are always people on the streets, day and night. If you mix offices and stores and churches and residential and restaurants and movies and parks and other uses close together then you always have people coming and going, keeping an eye on the area and making it both safe and interesting.

And sadly, that is exactly what Downtown is not; even the new parts (at least those parts I saw). The area seems overplanned, as if the city said, "Let's clear off this whoooole block and put something really magnificent here!" And they do, and it's magnificent, and it's also lifeless.

These fine new buildings, that could contribute so much to the community, don't seem to do so because they don't have any other lively things going on around them. For example, I'd think that people who have just got out of a concert just might like to wander across the street and have a cup of coffee at a restaurant. Well, lotsa luck! From the looks of it, it's just drive in, drive out. A soulless commuterville.

In concluding I need to emphasize that I'm only speaking from my experience of a couple of days and I don't know the circumstances surrounding the development of Downtown LA, so take what I'm saying with a grain of salt. Also, just today I spoke with a friend who said the city of LA is trying to address exactly the problems I saw, so perhaps those condos or apartments I saw being built up on Hill Street are part of the solution. Well, good. If there are people working to fix this problem, blessings upon them! I wish the city well. One of the great cities of the world should have a far livelier downtown than it now has.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

God Hardening Hearts

It has always troubled me a bit where the Bible says in Romans 9:18 that God "hardens whom he wants to harden."

Why then, I ask - as Romans 9:19 asks - does "God still blame us? For who resists his will?"

Paul explains that the potter has the right to do with the clay whatever he wants, and that is certainly true. God is the potter and we are the clay, and I am able to accept that God is all-wise and if he hardens the hearts of some, well, I don't get it, but he knows best.

But in rereading Romans I noticed something else, something that had eluded me before.

A couple chapters further on, in Romans 11:25, it says that "Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved."

That "until" struck me. The hardening in the case of Israel was not permanent. It is only for a time, and then "all Israel will be saved."

I thought back to Romans 9 with this in mind, and wondered if the hardening spoken of there might also a temporary measure used by God for some specific purpose. And I wonder if it may be the case most of the time that there are times when God temporarily hardens the hearts of people, but then when his purpose is accomplished he removes that hardening to allow them to be receptive to his love.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Pick Your Battles

I've always regarded Paul, the author of a good chunk of the New Testament, as an uncompromising proclaimer of truth and opponent of error, but during a recent reading of the Book of Romans, rather to my surprise, I noticed an important caveat that hadn't sunk in before - that there are some errors that we shouldn't oppose.

The passage that hit me - if you care to follow along - is the fourteenth and fifteenth chapters of Romans, but specifically, Romans 14:14, where Paul writes: "As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean."

In the first part of this verse Paul makes it clear that there is nothing wrong with eating any kind of food. Okay, that's the truth-proclaiming Paul I know so well. So, in the second part of the verse, I would have expected him to tell the believers to correct those who mistakenly believe you shouldn't eat meat.

But he doesn't!

Instead, he essentially says that some errors are harmless and to leave people in their errors because it is far more important that those people not violate their consciences.

So, if people believe, for example, that meat is out-of-bounds (14:21) or that one day is more sacred than another (14:5) or that you shouldn't drink wine (14:21)... well, so what!? Yes, they're wrong, but it just doesn't matter!

In fact, Paul goes further and even urges other believers to not eat meat if it's going to throw the lives of those who don't believe in eating meat into a tizzy.

So Paul is actually saying we should accomodate some types of error!


While there are indeed core issues that believers should stand up for firmly - as Paul does - there are also a slew of peripheral issues that just aren't worth fighting about and damaging people's faith about and alienating people about and upsetting people about and causing division about, even when we ab-so-lutely know the truth about those issues.

So, pick your battles... wisely.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Justice Versus Forgiveness

In reading some sermons by Martin Luther I came upon a concept I hadn't considered before.

Luther draws a distinction between the duties of the Christian as an individual and the duties of the Christian (or non-Christian) as a civil authority.

The distinction is that the Christian as an individual should always forgive and the civil authority should never forgive, but only exercise justice.

Not forgive? But that's at the very heart of Christianity!

But Luther points to Romans 13, which says the civil authority "does not bear the sword for nothing." And he also refers to Jesus distinction between two realms, the realm of civil authority and the realm of God's authority ("Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's" - Matt 22:21).

The civil authority's task, Luther says, is to punish criminals to maintain order and justice (not, by the way, to impose Caesar's authority on God's realm or vice versa). In the pursuit of that job the magistrate is to punish, not to forgive. In fact, the "sword" reference in Matthew 22 suggests that the civil authorities may also make use of the death penalty.

I find Luther's arguments mostly persuasive. Forgiveness, it seems, is only valid between the injured party and the injurer. So, if Joe hurts Sam, Sam can forgive Joe, while Robert, who is uninvolved, cannot forgive Joe for an injury to Sam.

But a judge is supposed to be an uninvolved person, a "Robert." Therefore, while a judge (for example) can take all extenuating circumstances into consideration - such as a killer being severely provoked, for example, or that the injury is absurdly small (your walking on someone else's grass) - and can properly adjust any judgment accordingly, the judge can't just forgive criminal behavior. Forgiveness is the task of the injured party alone; enforcing justice is the task of the civil authorities, even if those in authority are Christians.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Thoughts on the Trinity

I got a letter a while ago asking me to give a clearer presentation of the triune nature of God because my paraphrase of Anselm's hypothesis was a bit obscure. Well, I'm not sure that is something I can do any better, but the letter got me thinking about whether there is anything more I can say about the topic. And, come to think of it, there are a few things I'd like to add.

First, I'd like to take care of a very silly idea. I think there are some people who believe that the idea of the Trinity was conjured up out of whole cloth by the church for some nefarious reason. This is pure nonsense. I mean, what possible purpose would be served by that? Could it be to make the idea of God more explicable to people, thereby making the church more appealing to people?

Ha! Anybody who thinks the doctrine of the Trinity makes things easier to understand obviously has no clue what it is. I mean, come on! The doctrine is that God is one essence, but three persons, each of whom is fully God. That's supposed to be easy to understand? I don't think so!

No, Christians do not hold this view because it makes God easier to explain, for the very simple reason that it makes God harder to explain. The church believes this for the same reason scientists hold their views - the evidence supports it. The scientist's source of evidence is the environment; the Christian's is the Bible.

But perhaps it was just some goofy idea that crept in somehow and eventually just kind of became set, like concrete, as a doctrine.

That's really hard to accept. Both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churchs accepted (and accept) the doctrine, and when the Protestant Church broke away from the Roman church it threw out parts of Roman Catholic doctrine that it believed didn't reflect the Bible, but it held on to the difficult doctrine of the Trinity.

Why? Well, it certainly wasn't because the uncompromising Luther and Calvin and Zwingli had suddenly decided not to upset the Roman Catholic Church. No, they accepted the Trinity because they saw it in the Bible.

Okay, on to my main point.

At the edges of human perception things get very weird.

On a small scale, subatomic particles act in ways that - at least to me - are inexplicable, and on the grand scale the universe has attributes that are equally inexplicable. For example, if the universe is - in a sense - an expanding ball, what is on the outside of that ball? My mind screams that it's gotta be open space, but if I'm understanding the explanations, there's not even that. Very weird.

Then what is God like, who is in many ways beyond the edges of our perception?

I can only imagine that in many ways he is utterly beyond our comprehension. So if the environment we are a part of is so difficult for us to understand, why in the world should we imagine that the fullness of God should be easily understood by a fifth grade math student - or a PhD for that matter?

Further, the concept of the Trinity revolves around numbers (one and three), but the thing to remember is that God created numbers and he is not limited by the numbers he made. For example, if someone were to look at the Mona Lisa painting and try to draw conclusions about its creator, Michelangelo, that person might draw some reasonable inferences, but he would be stretching waaaay too far if he concluded that Michelangelo was flat, or that he always wore an enigmatic smile. God is no more limited by his creation than Michelangelo was limited by the attributes of the Mona Lisa.

So because God is so far beyond our understanding and beyond all the laws that govern our universe, the only way to know much about him is to take him at his word, so if you accept that the Bible is God's word to people, that means believing what the Bible says about his nature even if it is as mysterious to you as the curvature of 3D space is to me.

To wrap this up, I'd like to imagine someone asking me how God can be one essence and yet be three distinct persons. I think I would respond with some questions of my own:

Do you believe God is just?


Do you believe God is loving?


Do you believe God is creative?

Of course!

Alright. Are justice, love and creativity just different names for the same thing?

Well... no. They may be related, but I wouldn't say they are the same.

Okay. What percentage of God is just?

Well, all of him, of course! One hundred percent.

How about loving and creative? What percentage of God is loving and what percentage of God is creative?

All of God is loving and all of God is creative!

Okay, but how can justice, love and creativity (since they are not just different names for the same thing) each make up 100 percent of God? That comes to 300 percent, not 100 percent.

Uhh, I think you're just being silly.

Perhaps I am, but you can see that your view is not really much different from the Christian view of the Trinity. One essence; three attributes, each of which is God in His entirety.

Okay, I don't pretend that this imagined conversation explains the Trinity, but I do think it shows that the philosophical difficulty presented by the Trinity is not a problem unique to Christians. My point with this whole article is simply to say that God is so far beyond what we are capable of imagining that it makes the best sense - if we are Christians and accept the Bible as authoritative - to simply look at the evidence in the Bible and ask ourselves what it teaches about God, and then take God at his word.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Deathbed Conversions

I was reminded today of an email conversation I had years ago with my boss at a little company I used to work with.

How he came to think of this, I don't know, but he wrote me an email (copying another executive, so maybe it was a lunchtime discussion I was supposed to resolve), but anyway, he wanted to know if you can go to heaven by repenting a minute before you die after living badly during the rest of your life.

Well... yes, I replied, but...

I think that every time you shut your ears to God and turn away when he calls, you harden your heart a little bit. Day after day and year after year of ignoring God can build up a callous heart so that at that moment just before you die you may have no desire whatsoever to repent.

I suggested he not wait for that point. Though I haven't seen him in a long time, I'm still hoping he doesn't wait that long. And if you're reading this and haven't asked God to forgive you, I also hope you don't wait that long.

How to become a Christian

Seeker Churches: Out the Back Door

I was chatting recently with a woman who is the accountant at a "seeker friendly" church. (If you are not familiar with that term "seeker friendly," it means the services primarily address people who are not yet Christians, so the messages are often very basic and evangelistic in nature.)

She said since the church adopted that format some years ago the growth has been astonishing. Many people have made committments to Jesus and the church has grown so much that it now needs larger facilities.

Wonderful! But on the other hand, she said, older members are leaving. She said people hang around for about five years and then go to the church up the street (well, a lot of them do). That church, she said, is more "discipleship" oriented, helping people who are already Christians to grow in their walk with God.

In discussing this we agreed that people just don't want to be stuck in first grade for the rest of their lives.

Anyway, in addition to kind of hurting the pastor's feelings, the people who are leaving her church are the ones who do most of the giving. She said it takes a few years for people to get into the habit of giving, and then when they do, they trot off to the church up the street.

I joked that maybe her church and the church up the street should enter into a partnership.

However, as I've been considering this since our chat, I'm not sure it is a big problem. Maybe churches should specialize, and maybe seeker churches should just consider that their ministry is reaching non-Christians and accomodate themselves to people leaving after a while. Or maybe seeker and discipleship churches really should form partnerships. At minimum, it seems to me that seeker friendly churches need to realize that if they want to hold on to people, they need to provide some paths for them to really deepen their walks with God.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Is Belief Intolerant?

I just had an annoying conversation with a high school student who said that "Christians are worse than everybody else."

They are? Christians are worse than everybody else?

In our discussion, it turned out she didn't mean they did bad things (though I was willing to concede that they may), but rather that they hold their beliefs to be true and other people's beliefs to be false, which, of course, made them intolerant.

Sigh. This is so discouraging.

Anybody who holds any belief about anything can be painted with the same brush. By believing something about a topic, you are automatically saying that different beliefs about the same topic are wrong - maybe not entirely wrong - but wrong in some respect. And if you believe someone is wrong, then according the current tortured definition of "tolerance," you are intolerant.

To take a simple example, if you believe 2 plus 2 equals 4, the corollary is that you do not believe they add up to 7 (you intolerant slime ball!). And if you believe 2 plus 2 equals 13, then you also believe the corollary, which is that those who hold that 2 plus 2 equals 4 are wrong. (You're still intolerant.)

Nor does it make the slightest difference how tactfully you express your belief; you are still saying - if only by implication - that someone else is wrong.

Some may say that they believe all beliefs are equally valid and worthy of respect. On the surface that sounds very broadminded, but in fact, it is precisely the same as any other belief. By saying all beliefs are equally valid and worthy of respect, you are saying that those people are wrong who believe only some beliefs are valid and only some beliefs are worthy of respect. (You're as intolerant as the rest of us.)

So, basically, this student's argument is that Christians are intolerant because they believe in Christianity. And logically, it also means that geographers are intolerant if they believe Pensacola is in Florida, and zoologists are intolerant if they believe snakes are reptiles, and - need I say this? - it means this student is intolerant because she believes Christians are intolerant. In short, it means everyone is intolerant any time they hold anything to be true, which is so dumb it's hard to imagine I'm wasting my time writing about it.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Founding Anaheim

I recently read a book called "Men to Match My Mountains," by Irving Stone, about the history of the Western United States. Fairly good, but one thing that struck me as particularly interesting was the description of how the city of Anaheim, in Southern California, was founded.

The idea for the city, the book says, occured in 1857 to a group of Germans living in San Francisco who found the weather there a bit moist for their liking. (Obviously they were not looking for weather that reminded them of home.) So, 50 families each chipped in $750 to buy 1,165 acres in Southern California. They didn't all immediately move south, however. Instead, while they continued to live in the San Francisco area, they hired people in Southern California to divide up the land into 20-acre lots, build an irrigation canal, lay out a 40-acre town site in the middle, and fence in the community with willow trees. Then, when the vines began to bear fruit, the whole colony moved south to their new home.

But, because the properties were not identical in value, a committee assigned a value to each one, then the families drew lots for the properties. If they got a good lot, they paid the colony company extra money; if they got a poor lot, the company reimbursed them.

Clever... and fair.

I know that founding cities still happens occasionally (developers sometimes create cities near existing population centers, for example), but the idea of getting a group of likeminded people together to invest in a town and then carrying it out so methodically is pretty cool. Also, I thought the system the Germans adopted was very wise; they stayed up north - presumably working at their regular jobs - while they created jobs for themselves down south, then, when things were up and running, they just moved in and started working. Worth thinking about if you're planning to start a city. ;-)

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Attending Church with a Rabbit

Last Sunday at 11 a.m. I went to a new church. It was in a large building with stained glass windows, there was a good sermon and great music, a few people wandered around, there was some whispering and giggling, people lifted their hands in worship or knelt in prayer. All pretty normal for a contemporary-style church.

However... in the congregation was a large pink rabbit, a fairie, a woman with large butterfly wings and a man who kept jumping 15 or 20 feet into the air.

What is this weird place and how did I get here?

Well, I had read about a cyberworld called Second Life, a beautifully designed online place that in an approximate way resembles reality. In this world people can construct buildings, wander around, fly (without an airplane), meet people and party - especially party. And, in wandering around, I discovered that probably a lot of the partying is way beyond my level of comfort.

Anyway, I wondered if there was a Christian presence in this "world." I poked around a bit and found that, indeed, there is, so last Sunday I rushed home from my own church and attended the ALM CyberChurch. It was really great! I was welcomed at the door; the sermon was excellent; there was a fellowship time in an adjoining room after church, and I felt I had been in God's presence.

I shared this experience with my real-world fellowship, and after discussing it I think we all concluded that - with some reservations - cyberchurch is a useful tool, but some folks were a bit afraid that it might draw people in so much that they don't attend a real-world church. And one man felt because you wear a cyberbody that people would find it harder to get to know the real you.

Here are my thoughts on these objections:

- I think that probably every advance in communications has raised the possibility that people will withdraw from face-to-face contact and rely on a communications tool for their spiritual life. I'll bet that in Gutenberg's day some people were afraid that printing and distributing the Bible would cause people to withdraw and take their spiritual nourishment from solitary reading. The same might be said of radio or television ministries. And, frankly, I think those people have a point. It is possible some people will prefer a cyberchurch to a real-world church.

I'd generally prefer people don't abandon real-world churches since a cyberchurch is only an approximation of real people getting together in real bodies to worship God - though in some cases I think a cyber-church would be better than attending a dead real-world church.

- On the question of people hiding behind masks in the cyberworld, I think that may be true, but I think it probably works both ways. While your real face and manerisms can reveal much of your inner self to a discerning observer, I wonder if people in the cyberworld, who can choose their own bodies, aren't in a way choosing a body they believe expresses their deeper self. Also, I'd ask if the anonymity of the cyber-world doesn't make people feel a bit safer to reveal their inner selves since nobody need know who they are in the real world.

I don't think a cyber-church is for everybody. In fact, I think my visits will probably be just occasional, but I can think of some examples where they'd be a huge blessing:

1. For people who are physically isolated.

2. For those with health problems who are unable to leave their homes.

3. As an outreach to various groups of people. You could have a traditional church, a contemporary one, a punk one, a goth one, churches for various ethnicities. Whatever. I think you will find the cost of building facilities in the cyber-world compares favorably with the cost of building in the real world.

4. As a meeting place for Christians in closed countries for whom it is dangerous - or too distant - to get together in person.

5. For a mid-week fellowship group.

6. As a place for fellowships begun in the real world to continue when people move away. For example, a college Christian group could maintain itself when everybody graduates.

For a good introduction to the concept of cyber churches, see the Living Sounds Web page by the pastor of the ALM CyberChurch. If you'd like to visit the church, you need to sign up for Second Life (a basic account is free) and download the special Second Life browser. When you've done that, you can go directly to the church by clicking here: secondlife://Vine/173/75 .

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Meaningless, Meaningless!

What a peculiar document is the biblical book of Ecclesiastes!

"'Meaningless, meaningless,' says the Teacher. 'Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.'" The Teacher starts with that happy thought and winds up with it, yet sprinkled throughout the book are hints of something that is not at all meaningless.

One commentator suggested the author is taking on the persona (perhaps from his own experience) of the worldly person. I think the author is addressing the person who perhaps believes in God in a casual sort of way, but who is really just a materialist. For his discussion the Teacher adopts this worldly viewpoint and drives it unrelentingly to its logical and hopeless conclusion, but all the time dropping hints of something different and better.

Everything, he says, is going to crumble, and you yourself will die. And he proceeds along those lines in kind of a stream-of-consiousness fashion, poisonously juxtaposing comments about enjoying yourself with comments about your ultimately meaningless end. Or, in another case, saying a stillborn is better off than the living because the child has never experienced the pain of life on earth, while in another section saying that a live dog is better off than a dead lion. So, is it better to be dead or alive? The materialist could follow either line of logic, and the Teacher explores them both: Life's meaningless so I might as well just die, or, Life's all I've got so I should enjoy it while I can.

Mr. Cheerful he is not.

But then he goes and drops these little clues all over the place about the spiritual.

Without God, he says, "who can eat or find enjoyment." God has "set eternity in the hearts of men;" "everything God does will endure forever;" what God has done is "so that men will revere him;" "God will bring to judgement;" when man dies "he takes nothing from his labor that he can carry in his hand;" "I know it will go better with God-fearing men;" "Remember your Creator in the days of your youth;" on death "the spirit returns to God who gave it." Plus, there are lots of proverbs instructing people in how to live and, of course, there is the conclusion that men should keep God's commands and that God "will bring every deed into judgement."

His everyday proverbs on how to live and about doing good make no sense if the ultimate spiritual end is destruction. In that case, why do good unless it is convenient? His comment that God will judge makes no sense if that judgement is limited to this life. Listen to him: "Although a wicked man commits a hundred crimes and still lives a long time, I know that it will go better with God-fearing men." I mean, he's just admitted that sometimes the wicked live a long time, and if, after that, everything is over, judgement makes no sense at all. And why should men revere or remember God if spiritually - not just physically - the good and bad are both going to just be dead? Why would God put eternity in the hearts of men if there was nothing besides death? Just to mock us? And listen to this big hint - Hint? More like a flat-out statement - that the Teacher drops when he says that on death "the spirit returns to God who gave it." Wow! That's what lives on! The spirit.

But even on the spiritual level, the emphasis is on God, not on what we can do. What God does "will endure forever" while nothing we do for ourselves will last for long. It makes me think of the gospel, that Jesus did it all for us. It's not our work. It's his. We just need to trust in him so that when our spirits return to God, as Ecclesiastes says, we will stand in our spiritual selves before God with our sins cleansed and ready to experience the joy of that eternity that God has placed in our hearts.