Sunday, December 09, 2007

In Defense of Lists

Recently I heard - for one time too many - a speaker introduce his remarks by saying that the Christian life is not a list and that lists are inadequate for expressing the Christian life.

And then, rather apologetically, he said that despite that he was going to preach a sermon that used a list.

Well, good! I'm glad he bucked the trend, and it was a mighty fine sermon, but I really wish he didn't feel the need to apologize for something that is not only innocent, but positively useful!

I think perhaps the apology had something to do with the current postmodern movement that emphasizes "story" as the way to communicate and kind of looks down its nose at lists.

Fine. Tell stories. There are lots of them in the Bible. They're a good way to communicate. I like stories. But there are also lists. The - ahem - Ten Commandments?

I admit that stories are more memorable than abstract information, but that's the beauty of lists - they can make abstract concepts easier to remember and understand, and those who adopt a pointless bias against them will fail to teach all the Bible has to offer because some things simply do not lend themselves to being told as stories. For example, how do you teach the book of Romans - or Hebrews, or most of the other epistles - as a story? Are we just going to skip them, or try to force them into some artificial storybook format?

Yes, I admit lists can be abused. I've seen it happen. But I can also say from painful experience that stories can also be abused. I remember one sermon that wandered off into a story about the preacher's sick pet. I assure you that its being a story did nothing to redeem it.

So how about we all recognize that the Bible contains both stories and lists (and abstract information that is well-suited to being expressed with lists) and without apology simply use the type of format best suited for the topic and the audience.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Bad Microwave!

When I was growing up my family ate dinner together. We all sat down around the table and it was nice.

Sadly, I don't think that happens as frequently these days, at least, not at my house, and I think part of the reason - aside from my absentmindedness and slackness - is technology. You can yell out to your kids that their dinner is getting cold, and they'll think, "So what, I'll put it in the microwave later." Or they'll just get out some instant soup or prepackaged dinner, nuke it, and they're set. Unless you run a tight ship, any kid who knows how to work a microwave can prepare his or her own dinner on his or her own schedule. I know it may not be very nutritious, but I don't think that makes much difference to a lot of children.

In addition to food technology, there is also entertainment technology. Not only is there television, as there was when I was a kid (and that was hard enough on family dinnertimes), now there are also video and computer games. It used to be that talking at dinner kind of was the entertainment, but nowadays it's hard for mere talking to compete.

You can't rely on hunger or the fun of being together anymore. I think that having family meals now means additional pressure on parents to make them a requirement. Get a bit slack and you loose it.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Death of Humanity

Jason Robert Carrol breathed his last.

He lay in the hospital with his wife and children nearby and an attentive nursing staff and competent doctors. It was pneumonia, the old man's friend, as he used to jest.

As his body was removed, his wife sat down in the one visiting chair and the children on the floor, and they all shut off.

As the body was taken away, the hospital staff sat down in place and shut down. Then the hospital lights went out. The body was buried as Carrol's will had indicated and, their job complete, the burial crew shut down.

Carrol was the last one, and with him humanity died, never fully knowing.

It had begun in 2035, with the first marriage between a man and a robot. It was, of course, a very beautiful robot he had married, and as people rightly suspected, it had been just a physical interest, and the marriage did not last long.

But the robots improved rapidly. People took batteries of psychological tests, and then factories built and programmed robot spouses that matched them perfectly. Some wanted submission in their spouse; others preferred a bit of fire. Intelligence, stupidity, fawning adoration, beauty, sex, whatever. They got what they wanted.

They could even have children, robotic children who were updated regularly until they grew into adulthood, and then - like their parents - they appeared to age.

With mass production, the cost of robots dropped, and these pleasures of the rich became increasingly available to all. More and more people married - or simply lived with - robots. And life with a robotic man or woman who matched you perfectly was very beautiful.

But fewer and fewer people married other people, so the number of people began to slide, though where even one human existed, the streets were full of cars, the shops and restaurants were all open, and the media broadcast the news, though what part of the news was about robots and what part about humans it was impossible to tell, as the two were difficult to tell apart and because it was considered very rude to make such distinctions.

And in the end, the humans died out, never fully aware that it was even happening.

But the fearmongers were wrong. The robots never took over the world - they never even tried. They died with their masters. Although scientists had succeeded in making robots intelligent, they had never figured out how to give them a will.

No robot ever wanted anything, any more than a brick ever wanted anything. Oh, true, they acted as if they wanted things, and their apparent desires were indistinguishable from human desires, but it wasn't real.

Some scientists thought that if they combined the right software with enough processing power to make a computer's brain, that the computer would become self-aware and have a will. But it never happened, any more than a pile of bricks is more self-aware than a single brick. More and more on-off switches combined with more and more instructions for flipping those switches on and off never resulted in a computer that wanted so much as an ice cream cone or cared a bit or a byte whether it existed for a single additional second.

Oh, when the humans were still alive it certainly looked that way, and many scientists argued that robots had indeed achieved self-awareness, but when the last of the humans died, the robots - seeing no tasks before them - reverted to their most basic instruction set, and simply shut down to save power.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Time Travel and the Trinity

I was recently reading an old scifi classic called The Door Into Summer by Robert Heinlein (quite good, by the way) and came across a passage in which the main character is talking about a time-traveling guinea pig.

The thought came to me that time travel provides a neat illustration of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, which, if you are not familiar with it, is essentially this mind-bending statement: There is only one God; the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Each of them is wholly God but none of them is the other.

If you are confused, you are hardly alone. This doctrine was not proposed because it is easy to understand, but because the Bible teaches it.

So anyway, Heinlein's story got me thinking of this illustration.

Let's pretend that the genius scientist who lives next door to you has just invented a time machine, which you get to test. You step into the machine and it sends you back to last week. You walk home, open the door and stand face to face with ... you.

Hmmm. Now here is an interesting situation. Which of these two quite distinct, quite solid and quite real individuals is you?

Ahhh... both.

So does that means there are two of you?

Wellll, there are two individuals that are you, but - I know it sounds weird - there's just one you.

Does that mean that each of the individuals in the room is only part of you?

Noooo. Each of the individuals in the room, by himself, is completely and wholly you.

(Notice also that the "you" who went back in time came from the "you" who inhabited the past, and therefore the "you" in the past could - in a way - be said to be the source or "creator" of the future "you," but that doesn't mean the "you" from the future is younger than the "you" from the past. You are the same age as you.)

Similarly, the Father can be completely and wholly God and the Son can be completely and wholly God, but the Son is not the Father and the Father is not the Son (or the Holy Spirit, but I tried to keep it simple). The illustration also shows how a father-son type relationship could exist without the father existing before the son.

Big caveat: I'm not suggesting that this is how God is triune; I'm just trying to illustrate how it might be so in a situation we can imagine.

Some other things I've written on the Trinity:

The Trinity

Thoughts on the Trinity

Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Artistic Mind

Somewhat to my surprise I recently found myself attending a class on oil painting. My interest in painting - oil or otherwise - has been non-existent for my whole life, so I'm a bit surprised that I signed up. I think I just wanted to exercise another part of my mind or something. Who knows, but I'm loving it.

But anyway, just as your first visit to a town is often the most memorable because everything is new and hits you hard, so it has been for me regarding painting, and so I thought I'd share some impressions.

First, I've been pretty awestruck by my teacher. I'm painting from photos I've taken, and often in looking at the pictures, what I think I see often isn't really there. The tree trunk isn't brown, the water isn't blue, and the leaves aren't all green. He points these things out to me in my own photos. He sees ten thousand colors where I see about six, he sees lines and shades and light and shadow and patterns that I've missed. He's taught me that the primary colors are very seldom encountered in nature. Almost everything is a blend. If you want black for your landscape, he says, don't use black, use a dark brown and mix in a bit of green. Where I might look at a cathedral and say it is light gray, he would more accurately point out that its color shifts depending on where you stand, and on the time of day, and on the shadows, and so forth. Now I find myself looking at trees and dirt roads and trying to figure out exactly what colors they are - not always an easy task. So, if he's any indication, I think that in some ways artists really do see the world around them more clearly than the rest of us. (And, as an aside, this also inspires me to read the Bible and look for what is really there, not what I think is there or what I think ought to be there, but what is really there.)

But anyway, while I may be wrong, I've often thought that artists have a tendency toward relativism, a viewpoint in which there is nothing truly good or bad, right or wrong, true or false. In relativism it's all a mixture, kind of like the millions of shifting colors artists see in the world around them or mix on their palettes.

And, frankly, an honest look at the world will tend of confirm this viewpoint. There are few cases where I can point to something and say it is absolutely wicked or good or true or false. Life is generally a mixture.

But I think this outlook may result in artists tending to hold to the philosophical notion that because all we ever see is mixture, that "mixture" is all that ultimately exists. And that goes too far.

For example - sticking with paint, though I'm also talking about good and bad, and true and false - if you want to get gray you need black and white. Yes, I know that no black paint is absolutely Black and no white paint is absolutely White, but still, if there is ultimately no Black and White, then there can be no gray. Period. Gray is a mixture, and you simply can't have a mixture without at least two things to mix.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Thoughts on Matthew

For some months, I've been reading and re-reading and pondering and posting about the Book of Matthew in the New Testament. I thought it would be good to just create a set of links to those postings, so here they are:
Not Skipping Over Matthew 1
The Great Foreshadowing
Blasphemy Against The Holy Spirit
Invited But Not Chosen
The Scary Parts of Matthew
The Law of the Heart
Why Was Jesus Unclear?

Friday, August 24, 2007

Why Was Jesus Unclear?

One of the lessons I learned in journalism school was to write with blunt clarity. I don't always achieve that goal, but communicating clearly has long been one of my ideals. Therefore, it has been a bit bothersome to read through the book of Matthew in the New Testament and find that Jesus was often unclear, and that he was intentionally unclear.

As you probably know, Jesus often taught in parables. Some of these were reasonably clear, but some were not. Even his close disciples did not always understand (13:36).

Less well known, I suspect, is that Jesus also spoke in what I will call "contrasts."

By contrasts I mean that he taught that if you find your life you will lose it and if you lose your life you will find it (10:39); that you should not judge (7:1), and you should judge (7:6 - judge who is a "dog"); that you should be afraid of God (10:28) and that you should not be afraid of God (10:31); that you should let your good deeds be seen by men (5:14-16) and that you should not let your good deeds be seen by men (6:1); that if you exalt yourself you will be humbled and if you humble yourself you will be exalted, and so forth.

The meaning of some of these contrasts is clear, but like some of the proverbs, some require thought. Take the command not to judge and to judge. I think that means not to pass any sort of ultimate condemnation on anyone, but on the other hand to use good judgment about who will be receptive to hear the gospel. I think fearing and not fearing God means to have a deep, trembling respect for God, knowing he has the power to put people into hell, but to also know that he loves his children, so those who love him need not have any fear for their ultimate destiny. And regarding the commands to let your good deeds be seen by men and not let them be seen by men, I think this means not to do anything to bring glory to yourself, but make sure God alone gets the credit for the good deeds he inspires you to do. But read them yourself and see what you think.

Anyway, this method of teaching was no accident. Jesus was perfectly well aware that much of what he was saying required thought to understand, and I think that's what he wanted.

But why?

I've pondered this and have come up with a number of reasons, some of which are speculative, but, I think, likely. So let me share them with you.

- The person who hears a parable is forced to think - at least if he wants to understand it. But some people are not interested in understanding, so, by speaking in parables (or contrasts), Jesus mercifully protects uninterested people from learning yet more truth that they would then become responsible to God for acting upon (13:11-12).

- Jesus wanted to create a group of disciples - beyond the inner core of twelve - and this kind of teaching probably divided people into two camps. First, the "Bah! He's talking nonsense" group, who would walk away, and second, the group that says, "Hmm. Interesting. I think I understand, but maybe I should talk to the disciples to see what they say." So some walked away, but others, those who had a thirst for God, hung around and pondered and asked questions. These became disciples.

- Parables have a delayed-release effect: not everybody instantly understood what Jesus meant; some people figured it out later, maybe after discussing it with friends. This was a good thing because Jesus wanted to keep things under control. He didn't want a crowd to get all excited at his teaching and try to make him an earthly ruler or otherwise disrupt his mission. I think that is why he often discouraged people from telling about his miracles. By letting his message sink in slowly, he stopped people from acting in a moment of wild enthusiasm.

- While his parables and contrasts may have taken people a while to figure out, they are very memorable. They are dramatic and stick in the mind until a person is ready and willing to think them over. There are few things more worthless than a forgotten lesson.

- Jesus is training his disciples to take over when he leaves. By giving the people parables but giving the disciples the inside information on the meaning of these parables (13:11), Jesus gives the disciples authority, because anyone who has knowledge about a topic just naturally has authority in that realm. So Jesus isn't trying to deprive the people of the meaning of the parables and contrasts, but he wants that information to come through the disciples so they have authority to lead when he is gone ("What is whispered in your ear," he tells them, "proclaim from the roofs" 10:27).

Also, I think that implied in all the contrasts and parables of Jesus is the command to think. If you don't think, you won't understand his teaching, and if you don't understand it then you can't obey it.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Law of the Heart

One passage in the New Testament book of Matthew that confused me for a long time was the passage in which Jesus says that he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it (5:17). How, I wondered, does that mesh with Paul's teaching about it being faith, and not keeping the law, that results in salvation (Rom. 3:27-28, Rom. 4:13-15, Gal. 5:4, etc.)?

I thought maybe "fulfill" was a round-about way of saying "abolish," but Jesus goes on to say that "until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen" will disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished." Heaven and earth haven't disappeared, and while it is not entirely clear to me what the "everything" is that Jesus is referring to, it seems pretty clear that it involves wrapping up heaven and earth, and they haven't been wrapped up. Plus, Jesus warns that the person who breaks the commandments and teaches others to break them will be the "least in the kingdom of heaven." And finally, in verse 5:20 he adds that "unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven."

I think my discouraged reaction is probably the same reaction as those who heard Jesus say this the first time: "I can't do that! Those Pharisees are fanatics. They spend every living moment following this huge laundry list of rules." But then, as these people listened to Jesus, I think a lot of them said, "Ahhh! I see what you mean."

Okay, so what does Jesus mean?

I believe he means that the Pharisees were on the wrong track; that obeying the law is not a matter of obeying a complex tangle of rules, but it is a matter of the heart; it is a matter of looking through the outward rules to the real intent of the law, which is love and faith. I think it is this tangle of outward legalisms that Paul objected to when he rejected the law; he certainly did not reject faith and love (1 Cor. 13).

So let me try to defend this view.

I found three places in Matthew where Jesus sums up the law:

1. In his conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, "In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets" (7:12).

2. In 22:23 Jesus says the most important parts of the law are to exercise justice, mercy and faithfulness.

3. And his grand summation, "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments" (22:37-40).

So, the first two of these examples strongly imply love, and the third example makes it explicit. The law is to love and love is from the heart. So, to outdo the Pharisees in obeying the law, love God and love people from deep in your heart.

When I understood that, it made a lot of Jesus' teaching in Matthew a lot clearer.

Some examples:

- Jesus looks below the surface of the law against murder, to the heart, and condemns anger and hatred (5:21).

- It isn't just the physical act of adultery; looking at a woman lustfully is a violation of the law against adultery. Again, Jesus looks at the heart.

- Give to the poor secretly (6:1-4) and pray to God secretly (6:6) and fast secretly (6:17-18). Jesus is saying not to make a show of doing these things because what is important is the attitude of your heart.

- Jesus profusely praises the centurion for his faith (8:10) and later that of the Canaanite woman (15:21-28). Again, Jesus focuses on what is in the centurion's and Canaanite woman's hearts.

- When Jesus "worked" on the Sabbath by healing a man with a shriveled hand (12:9-13) he was obeying the true meaning of the Sabbath, which was instituted in love by God as a day of rest and recovery. Jesus brought recovery to the man with the shriveled hand.

- In the parable of the workers in the vineyard (20:1-16) Jesus seems to be saying that the amount of work the workers did is not the key thing; the key thing was a matter of the heart, that the workers were willing to work for the landowner.

- Jesus condemns the chief priests and elders (21:23, 23:32) because they did not believe; again, a matter of the heart.

- When Jesus tells the rich young man (19:21) to give away all he has, this instruction is not in the Old Testament and Jesus isn't making a general rule that the rich can't enter heaven (in fact he says the rich entering heaven is possible with God - 19:25-26), but he tells the rich man this in order to take him down to his heart; to show him that he values his riches more than God.

- In the parable of the different kinds of soils (13:3-23), the seed in the rocky soil does not sink its roots down to the nourishing soil, the heart. The man represented by the rocky soil had some sort of a joyful experience, but it was a superficial experience, not the same as faith rooted in the heart.

- Similarly, in the parable of the ten virgins (25:1-13), I think the five virgins who did not have enough oil for their lamps represent those whose faith is inadequate because it does not reach down to a reservoir of faith in their hearts; it is just a fluffy surface experience. If the oil does indeed represent faith, that would explain why the wise virgins could not lend them oil - because you can only have enough faith to save yourself; other people can't borrow your faith to save themselves - they need their own.

I could cite other examples, but to sum up, let me quote Jesus' defense of his disciples, who ate with unwashed hands. Jesus said that it isn't what goes into your mouth that makes you unclean; it's the things that come out of the mouth, because ..."the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man 'unclean.' For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man 'unclean'." (15:18-20)

For Jesus, it is what is in your heart that counts.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

The Scary Parts of Matthew

One of the things that bothered me as I read and pondered the book of Matthew in the New Testament over the past few months is that it seems so easy to go to Hell.

In the book, Jesus repeatedly warns of judgment and Hell and speaks of people being unworthy of him, a lot of times for things I've done ... sometimes repeatedly. Things like not showing mercy (5:7), being angry with a brother (5:21-22), thinking adultery (5:27-30), judging others (7:1), not standing firm in my devotion to Jesus (10:22), disowning Jesus (10:33), loving family more than Jesus (10:37-39), not being prepared for Jesus' return (25:12), not using the talents God has given me (24:50-51), failing to be kind to the poor (25:34-46), etc.

A casual reading of Matthew can be very disheartening, but I think a more careful reading flips that around completely and should be very encouraging for the Christian.

Let's take the example of judging others. Jesus says that if you judge others you will be judged. Well... I'm afraid I have judged others, probably quite a few times.

But in reading this (and similar passages) I forgot to consider that there have not only been times when I have judged people, but there have also been times when I have not judged them. So am I in trouble because of the times I was bad, or am I okay because of the times I was good?

Well, Jesus makes it clear that he does want perfection from us (5:48), but he knows we will fail and need forgiveness (5:7, 18:32-35). He also knows that the student is not above his teacher, but Jesus is satisfied if the student is simply like his teacher (10:24-25). And, of course, he knows that "the spirit is willing, but the body is weak" (26:41).

I found these verses pretty much persuaded me that I'm not doomed, but what finally convinced me that I'm okay despite my very checkered past is the story of Peter.

As you may recall, Jesus said that if you deny him before men, he will deny you before the Father (10:33). Well, Peter denied Jesus big time! (26:69-75) though at other times he acknowledged Jesus. And yet despite Peter's denial, Jesus accepted Peter! If obedience had to be perfect, Peter would have gone to Hell.

Whew! There is hope.

But don't for a minute get the idea that I believe my good deeds outweigh my bad deeds so I go to heaven. Not at all! I believe that in all these (formerly) frightening passages, Jesus is really talking about what's in our hearts (though let me defend that assertion in an upcoming post). I think Jesus means that if we have faith, it will express itself outwardly, and if your faith does not express itself outwardly, then you don't have faith at all, so quit kidding yourself, and those threats of Hell apply to you.

In other words, if you have faith, you will show mercy (5:7); you won't be angry with your brother (5:21-22); you won't think adulterous thoughts (5:27-30); you won't condemn others (7:1); you will be firm in your devotion to Jesus (10:22); you will acknowledge Jesus publicly (10:33); you will love Jesus more than family (10:37-39); you will be prepared for Jesus' return (25:12); you will use the talents God has given you (24:50-51); you will be kind to the poor (25:34-46); and so forth.

Not perfectly, of course, but if you have faith in Jesus it will show.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Jonah and the Minnow

While the story of Jonah and the whale (or sea monster or fish or whatever) has long been a source of ammunition and ammusement for those who want to ridicule the Bible, this is truly one of the most doofus objections to the Bible that I've ever heard.

The argument is basically that the story is ridiculous; that a whale couldn't swallow a man, and if it did the man would surely drown.

To which the proper response should be: "Well... of course!"

This story is about what is is called a "miracle," and - do I really need to explain this? - miracles violate the basic laws of nature. If they didn't they wouldn't be called "miracles."

If the Bible said Jonah was swallowed by a minnow, I wouldn't have the slightest philosophical problem with that. God is quite capable of putting a man into a minnow. In fact, scientists - whom the critics presumably believe - say that the whole universe was once smaller than a pinprick, so if the universe was once so small that it could get lost in your empty back pocket, what's so hard about fitting a man into a big fish?

Note: There has been some discussion about whether Jonah was kept alive in the sea creature or was brought back to life after his underwater trip, but either way we're talking about a miracle.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Invited But Not Chosen

In Matthew 22:1-14 Jesus tells a parable about a king who invited people to a wedding banquet for his son, but the people ignored the invitation and some even killed the king's messengers. So the king killed the murderers and had his servants round up all sorts of people - good or bad - for the wedding.

Okay, I get it so far, but at the ending of the parable is a part that I've always found curious.

The king finds that one of the people does not have on wedding clothes: "Friend," he asked, "how did you get in here without wedding clothes?" and then, the man having no excuse, the king had him tied up and bounced outside into the darkness, "where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."

Then Jesus concludes the parable by saying, "For many are invited, but few are chosen."

Yow! Seems a bit severe for not having wedding clothes on, and anyway, what's the difference between being invited and chosen? Well, remember, this is a parable, so you are supposed to look for the meaning hidden underneath, so let's do that.

Reading further, in Matthew 26:50, when Judas betrayed Jesus in the garden, it caught my eye that Jesus said, "Friend, do what you came for." So, first the king called the man "friend" and now Jesus calls Judas "friend." Is it possible that in the garden Jesus was tying Judas back to this parable?

I think it quite likely since Judas fits the parable so well. Judas was invited but was certainly not chosen. Judas was asked to join with Jesus, to be a friend and even to become one of the twelve, but deep in Judas' heart he was an enemy. And, just like the guest without wedding clothes, he would soon be thrown into the outer darkness.

So I think that having wedding clothes on means being a true friend to Jesus, being someone who really wants to celebrate with him at his banquet. In fact, if you don't love Jesus, if you're just a fake friend, why would you even want to crash his banquet? And why do you think God would allow it?

So if you are pretending to be a believer - maybe because your friends believe - it ultimately won't work. Please stop faking and make it real.

Become a Christian

Friday, May 11, 2007

James Macpherson Improves Journalism

My friend James Macpherson is coming in for a lot of criticism across the Net. People are saying that he is ruining journalism by his decision to hire writers in India to help cover local news in Pasadena, California, for his Web site. Well, I'd like to say a few words in his defense, but before I do, I need to make clear that I have helped him with some of the technical aspects of his site, and have a financial interest in his success, so if you need to discount what I say, now you have a reason.

One of the main comments I've read is that a reporter really needs to be local, and actually go to the events he or she covers. Having been a reporter, I agree that if other things are equal, being physically at an event is a better way to do journalism. However I'm sure that ever since the telephone became common, distance reporting has been a regular practice. I certainly did plenty of phone interviews when I was a reporter and I know others did as well. And today interviews are also conducted by email, Internet Messenger, and by Skype. And I'm sure lots of reporters in the United States don't attend their local city council meetings anymore, but watch them on cable television or by webcast.

I also agree that cultural differences will likely show up in reporting from India, but that is easily dealt with by James editing the story before it is published, which he will do.

So while I agree with those arguments, I think their effects can be minimized. But, what I am seeing is a far different problem than most people are seeing. I see this not as a conflict between good and bad journalism, but between journalism and no journalism.

What I mean is this: I used to work for the now-defunct Arcadia Tribune, in Arcadia, California, which was owned by our local daily newspaper. When I worked there I had to physically go to virtually every Arcadia City Council meeting, every Planning Commission meeting and every School Board meeting and write up what happened. But the local daily newspaper no longer requires that. I know this because recently I did an email newsletter about my local school district, and in four or five years attending the board meetings I saw a reporter maybe twice. And because there were seldom any stories, I knew that no reporters were watching by cable television either.

So, my point is that this is important stuff AND IT IS NOT BEING DONE WELL! The newspapers I am aware of no longer cover local government meetings on a regular basis, particularly for smaller cities. In newspapers' defense, perhaps the economics no longer make sense, but reporting on what local government is doing is one of the main functions of newspapers and its a rotten shame to see papers either unable or unwilling to perform that task.

So, by figuring out a way for his publication to economically perform this vital government-watching function in more complete way, James is improving journalism. What he is doing may not be perfect, but by filling some of the gaps in local news coverage, James is making a big, positive step, and he doesn't deserve the abuse he's getting.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Blasphemy Against The Holy Spirit

Usually I don't write about things that are general knowledge (what's the point?), but I've been reading through the book of Matthew and ran into the passage about blaspheming against the Holy Spirit (Matt. 12:31-32) and remembered my reaction when I first read that... "anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come." Scary, huh? And that's why I want to write about this, because I think some believers are frightened by it when they are the last ones who should be concerned.

I think the reason for the fright is that all too often we focus on a particular verse in the Bible and neglect to take into consideration the verses around it, which is kind of like putting your greasy nose on the Mona Lisa and then trying to understand it from that range.

So let's back off just a little bit.

This passage begins at Matthew 12:22 with some Pharisees saying Jesus drove out demons by the power of the Devil. Jesus denies that and says he drives them out by the Spirit of God (vs. 28). Then he adds that if you're not for him you are against him and that all sins will be forgiven except blasphemy against the Spirit, which will never be forgiven. Jesus concludes (33-37) by saying that what's in you will come out; that evil in your heart will overflow into evil words, and that you will have to give account on the day of judgement for every careless word.

It seems, then, that blasphemy of the Holy Spirit was what these Pharisees were doing; saying that the Holy Spirit - the power by which Jesus performed his exorcisms - is actually evil. Also, Jesus adds later (vs. 36) that even careless words will get you into trouble, so apparently this blasphemy doesn't even need to be as explicit as what the Pharisees did.

These seem to be very harsh words, but I think not. I think the reason blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is unforgivable is because by rejecting the Holy Spirit, unbelievers reject the power of God to change them. If you see evidence of God's Spirit at work in another person or when you hear God's Spirit knocking at the door of your heart, and if you say, "Begone evil spirit!" or "No," or "Go away," or "I'm not interested," or "No thank you" or "Yawn," then you are turning away the only power that can save you.

That one little word, "No," - spoken aloud or just in your heart - can kill you.

Okay... But if you reject the Holy Spirit once does that mean you are condemned forever?

Well, remember verses 33-35. Jesus says there that your words (the ones that make noise in the air) actually reside in your heart, which is the critical thing. So if that word of rejection that dwells in your heart remains there, then sadly, yes, there is no forgiveness. But if you will only surrender and say "Yes" when the Holy Spirit knocks on the door of your heart, then the "no" ceases to exist and God's Spirit is free to enter your life and forgive you and make you right with God.

How to become a Christian

Friday, March 09, 2007

The Great Foreshadowing: Matthew 1-4

I've been reading and rereading my way slowly through the New Testament book of Matthew and something struck me that I'd never seen before, though I've read Matthew probably a dozen times.

The first four chapters (and perhaps more, but I haven't gotten there yet) parallel the life of the nation of Israel.

  • Israel traces its ancestry back to Abraham. Jesus traces his ancestry back to Abraham.
  • Israel was born in the promised land. Jesus was born in the promised land.
  • Israel went to Egypt. Jesus went to Egypt.
  • Moses called the people into the desert. John the Baptist called the people into the desert.
  • Moses "baptized" people through the water of the Red Sea (Paul compares the crossing of the Red Sea to baptism [1 Corinthians 10:1-2]). John baptized people in water.
  • The people of Israel were "baptized." Jesus was baptized.
  • Israel spent 40 years in the wilderness. Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness.
  • Israel was tested in the wilderness (Deuteronomy. 8:2). Jesus was tested in the wilderness.
  • Israel was hungry in the wilderness (Deut. 8:3). Jesus was hungry in the wilderness.
  • God provided Israel with food in the wilderness. God provided Jesus with (spiritual) food in the wilderness. (I think this is suggested by Jesus' reply to the devil in Matt. 3:4, that "Man does not live by bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.")
  • When Moses leadership ended, Joshua took over. When John's leadership ended (with his imprisonment), Jesus took over.
  • In Hebrew, Joshua's name and Jesus' name are the same.
  • Joshua went throughout the promised land with his army. Jesus went throughout the promised land with his followers.
There may be more parallels, but it seems that at least Matthew is saying that the whole history of Israel is a foreshadowing or prophesy of Jesus life.

I think I first noticed this in reading Matthew 2:15, that says Jesus' return from Egypt was a fulfillment of the prophesy: "Out of Egypt I called my son." But in looking back at Hosea 11:1 it appears that the passage was referring to God calling the people of Israel (figuratively called "my son") out of Egypt.

When I had casually examined this passage in the past, I kinda thought, "Ya know, Matthew, I think that's a bit of a stretch." But now I believe I see what Matthew meant. He meant that God figuratively calling "his son" out of Egypt was a foreshadowing of God literally calling "his son" out of Egypt.

Further, the parallelism was emphasized for me with Jesus' answer when the devil tempted him to make food out of rocks. Jesus, enduring trials in the wilderness, quoted Deut. 8:3, which speaks of Israel enduring trials in the wilderness. That pretty much clinched it for me that the parallels were not an accident but quite intentional.

So anyway, so what if the history of Israel foreshadows the life of Jesus?

Well, I think there is a lot more to it than I'm seeing, but one obvious answer is that it reinforces the point - as I mentioned in the essay about Jesus' genealogy - that Jesus wasn't someone who just appeared out of the blue, but that he is central and all-important in God's plan. That a nation - a whole nation - should be used by God to foreshadow the life of one man makes me shiver with awe at how great that man must be.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Not Skipping Over Matthew 1

Often, in reading the book of Matthew, I think people tend to skip over the genealogy in Matthew 1. We read the first verse, then sort of go blah, blah, blah until verse 18, then pick up the narative again. I think that's a big mistake.

I agree that this genealogy looks boring at first glance, but there is important stuff there, topics worthy of a sermon or three. Let me try to demonstrate that this is the case by coming up with a few sermon topics.

1. When Talking to People about Jesus, Start on Common Ground

That's what Matthew did, and it is why he started off with a genealogy.

Right up front, in verse one, Matthew says that Jesus is the "son of David," which qualifies him to be the Messiah. BIG claim, so Matthew does not dawdle, but gets right to work proving his point by tracing Jesus' lineage, right back through David.

Notice also that the genealogy moves from earlier in time forward to Jesus, rather than starting from Jesus and moving back in time, as does the genealogy in Luke.

I think the reason for this is that Matthew is making it clear to his Jewish readers that this is a continuation of God's long work - a work that his audience is very familiar with - not something unconnected and popping up out of the blue.

So, in explaining the gospel, do we do our best to connect with our audience using a point of reference they will understand?

2. God Uses Both the Great and the Small

In reading this genealogy one of the first things that I wonder is: Who are all these people? Some of them are very well known (Abraham, Jacob, Judah, David, Hezekiah and others), but who were Abiud and Zadok? Some of these guys aren't even mentioned anywhere else in the Bible and even some of those who are mentioned elsewhere are obscure.

But whether these people were great or obscure, and whether they knew it or not, they were all part of God's plan to bring about the birth of Jesus.

So take heart, even if you live and work in obscurity, you are part of God's plan.

3. Jesus is for Both Jews and Gentiles

It is interesting that Matthew traces Jesus genealogy way back, past David, to Abraham. In fact, in verse one Matthew says that Jesus is the son of David and, he adds, the son of Abraham.

If Matthew's only point is to show that Jesus is the son of David, why does he continue tracing the lineage back to Abraham? I think one reason is because Abraham was not technically Jewish, since the line of Israel actually began with Abraham's grandson Jacob.

So, by linking Jesus to Abraham, I think part of Matthew's point is that Jesus is not exclusively for the Jews, but is for all people. This point is strengthened by the mention of the women Rahab and Ruth in the genealogy, neither of whom where Jews. Since Matthew was tracing a patriarchal genealogy, it would have been very easy to exclude those women if he had wanted to exclude non-Jews. But he doesn't! They're included, too.

4. The Three Groups

Notice as you read the genealogy that Matthew highlights three groups among Jesus' ancestors:

First, the group headed by Abraham, the man who believed God and had it "credited to him as righteousness" (Gen. 15:6). I think this is one reason Matthew begins the genealogy with Abraham, to emphasize the central role of faith.

Second, the group headed by David, the king. I think Matthew intends here to point out that Jesus is the King, the Messiah.

Third, the group beginning with the Babylonian captivity. The captivity was a time of cleansing for the Jews, so I think Matthew intends to point out that Jesus came to bring spiritual cleansing.

If I was to summarize this, I think Matthew is saying: Have faith in your great King, your Messiah, who will purify your lives.

5. The Three Fourteens

Matthew notes that the three groups in the genealogy were each comprised of 14 individuals. However, if you count the names there are 40 names (a common biblical number, and perhaps symbolic), but the problem is that 40 divided by 3 is not 14, but about 13.33.

At this point you might slam shut your Bible and say it's all a fraud, but you would be mistaken. A closer reading shows that Matthew is counting the transition people twice, so, he says, from Abraham to David there were 14, and from David to the exile (Jeconiah) there were fourteen, and from the exile (Jeconiah) to the Christ there were fourteen. Notice that David is counted twice and Jeconiah is counted twice.

It's not, perhaps, how you or I would have divided a group of 40, but it works.

So, because Matthew has made the transition people mark both the end of the previous period and the beginning of the new era, it is completely fair to conclude the same thing about Jesus, that he both ends the previous era and begins a new era. And notice that Matthew emphasizes (vss. 16, 17) Jesus' title of "Christ." Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah. So, this new era is the era of the Messiah.

Another thing I have learned is to think about this genealogy when I run into passages in the Bible I don't understand. Sometimes what appears to be wrong turns out on closer examination to be simply a different way of looking at things. Don't turn away from God because you encounter some things you don't understand.

So, anyway, I think there is a lot more in this genealogy, but I just wanted to explore it a bit to encourage others to realize that it is not a barren stretch to skip over, but is full of good content.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

The Chinese Burrito

Okay, I just had a million dollar idea. It is based on three assumptions:

  1. Americans often eat on the run, while they're walking or driving.
  2. Chinese food - except for the place down the street from my house - is yummy.
  3. You can't eat Chinese food on the run. You have to sit down and eat it.
So in one respect Chinese food is not as well adapted to the American lifestyle as it could be.

Solution: Wrap the orange chicken, or beef brocoli, or whatever Chinese food you like, in a tortilla.

Bingo! A Chinese burrito. Tasty and easy to eat on the go.

Feel free to use this idea to make your first million dollars. Just send me a coupon for 50 cents off. :-)

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Crocodile and Alligator

My dad (Robert Haugaard) made up this joke, which I thought was pretty good:
A crocodile thought he was an alligator, but he was in denial.

Monday, January 08, 2007

How Should We Give to the Poor?

I see them at freeway exits and on the sidewalks in shopping areas. Men and women with signs that say they're homeless, asking for money. And frankly, I'm very unsure what to do.

Jesus was pretty clear that his followers need to give to the poor, but then Paul says that "If a man will not work, he shall not eat" (2 Thes. 3:10).

What troubles me is when I see the same people, day after day, who seem to be making a career out of begging. I see men and women with "I am homeless" signs who are smoking and drinking large coffees from fast food stores and listening to an iPod (or some digital device). Is that what the money they get is buying?

I see freeway exits without anyone begging, then a bit later, every exit is covered. I've even seen what seems to be sort of a changing of the guard, with one homeless person walking away and another taking his sign and resuming the begging, as if one person is going off duty and another going on. It's almost as if it is organized. And when it seems organized, it begins to seem like a con.

I've seen people who are probably illegal Mexican aliens lining up near a building supply store by a freeway exit to do what is probably some seriously hard day labor while a small distance away are people asking for a handout. Why aren't they doing day labor, too? Are Mexicans the only ones who can work hard?

My mother was approached by a woman outside a grocery store who asked for money to feed her children. Sure, my mother told her, she'd go back in the store and buy her a chicken and some rice. No, the woman said, she wanted money to take her kids to McDonalds.

I've been told by co-workers that they've seen a guy who begs down the street from our office get into a pickup truck and drive away.

So on the one hand, I want to help, but on the other hand - like Paul - don't want to encourage laziness. I realize that some of what I see - the bad use of money, for example - could be partly tied to mental problems, but on the other hand, I think some of it is a con job or a simple disinclination to work.

One solution is to give to organizations that specifically work with the homeless, and sometimes I do that, but that also feels a bit "hands-off-ish," as if I want to avoid any personal contact with people in need. And that is - I hate to say - partly true. In fact, one reason I sometimes do give directly to people on the street is because I want to force myself to be a bit more personal, something I am not naturally inclined to be.

But on the other hand, giving money to people on the street may just be feeding an ugly addiction or rewarding con artists or helping people avoid getting assistance for their problems.

So I wrestle with this. Not whether to give - that's commanded - but how to give wisely and within the time I have available.

If you have any thoughts, I'd like to hear them and maybe post them here.