Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Trinity: One Substance, Three Persons

One definition of the Trinity in Christian theology is that God is "one substance but three persons."

So, the Father is fully God and the Son is fully God and the Holy Spirit is fully God, but the Father is not the Son or the Holy Spirit, and the Son is not the Father or the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is not the Father or the Son.

Confusing? Indeed it is.

But here is an illustration that may help a little bit. Like all analogies for God, I'm sure it breaks down at some point, but I find it helpful in getting a glimpse of how each member of the Trinity can be separate but "one substance."

Consider this illustration:

It is a picture of a young woman AND it is a picture of an old woman. (If you don't see it, look at it for a while.)

Two different people.

But the picture is not half old woman and half young woman; the young woman is the whole picture and the old woman is the whole picture.

However, the substance (the pixels, or the ink on paper) is identical.

One substance but two distinct people.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Against the Idolatry of Economic Philosophy

I wrote earlier that most political/economic debate in the United States these days is along the libertarian-to-socialist axis, which is anchored at both ends by inflexible athiests, Ayn Rand at the libertarian end and Karl Marx at the socialist end.

But every point along this axis has an often unspoken connection with the concept of "good and bad." This is easily shown. For example: No matter whether a person believes education should be completely private (libertarian) or completely governmental (socialist), or any point in between, that person believes it because he thinks his view is "good." Good for people; good for society. Otherwise, why should he care how education is conducted, or even if it is conducted?

And that "good" point is what Christians should focus on, but, I'm afraid, frequently do not.

I think that many people tend to have a loyalty to their political/economic philosophy, sort of regarding it as their home-town sports team. Go Dodgers! Go Manchester United! And that my-team attitude, I think, is a bad place for anybody to be, but especially for Christians.

Especially for Christians because whenever we put anything above God and his Word, we are slipping into idolatry.

I think the proper attitude for Christians is to ask themselves which solution to a social problem is good, regardless of whether it is the solution of their "team." Someone who is never willing to consider a solution other than what his team offers is guilty of the idolatry of putting man, or a man-made philosophy, ahead of God.

So, what does adopting this attitude accomplish? Well, I'm hopeful that it would be a help for our hearts and at least a bit of help in coming to conclusions. For example, while I generally think solutions toward the libertarian end of the axis are going to be better than those on the socialist side, I'm willing to accept some socialist solutions.

To take a fairly safe example, I think the government should control the military -- lock, stock and barrel, so to speak. That's pretty socialist.

There are also times when I'm a semi-socialist. I believe the government should sometimes be allowed to trump private-property rights. For example, if someone owns land in a pass through the mountains that the government needs for an important highway, and if he won't sell the property, I think the government should be allowed to buy it from him regardless (though, since this could so easily be abused, I want lots of rules to control when the government can exercise this power).

So, I'll try to be faithful to God above my libertarian-leaning philosophy, and I hope Christians leaning towards socialism will do the same.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

God and the Atheistic Continuum

The thing that troubles me most about current politics is that it seems to be fought out exclusively along an axis between socialism (high governmental control) at one end and libertarianism (low governmental control) at the other end. What bothers me is that while there are Christians all along this spectrum, it is anchored at either end by aggressive atheists - Marx at the socialist end and Ayn Rand at the libertarian end.

Because of this, in minds operating along this continuum, God may seem to be irrelevant. What I mean is that for an argument to have some chance of being accepted in this arena, it needs to be framed in terms that fit this socialist-to-libertarian spectrum.

For example, I could argue that God wants marriage to be just between a man and a woman, but if I did so I'm afraid I would simply be ignored or laughed at because the "God" concept seems out-of-bounds to those who are stuck along this atheistic continuum.

Instead, if I wish to defend marriage as being solely between a man and a woman, I would argue (and have) that an institution can own the rights to a word ("Coke," for example, belongs to the Coca Cola Company so Pepsi and others can't label their products "Coke"), so, in the same way, a long-time institution such as marriage should have the right to retain the word "marriage" to describe only the contractual relationship between a man and woman. That doesn't limit others' lifestyles, but legally others need to name their arrangement something else - a "union," or whatever.

So, if I argue within the continuum, perhaps I win over a few minds, and I'm glad if I do, but I have lost the much bigger battle. I have left God out, and that bothers me.

Perhaps political discussion needs to begin at a deeper level. Atheist socialists and atheist libertarians may be making assumptions they have not examined, one assumption being that the welfare of people is a high priority. Is it? Why? Atheism gives no reason for valuing anything, including human life. But God declares that human life is valuable. I think Christians need to take every opportunity to re-introduce God, to point out that there is no atheistic command, "Thou shalt not kill" and there is no atheistic command to "love thy neighbor." Those commands are from God, and if socialists or libertarians wish their arguments to be on firm ground when they appeal to human welfare, they need to recognize that.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Road Trips and Breaking Habits

I went on a road trip recently and I noticed that my habits were disrupted. Though I'm usually quite diligent in spending time reading my Bible and praying each day, I found that I was not doing that consistently while on the road.

I suspect that my habits were formed in one environment and when I moved into a new environment the cues I used to perform those habits were missing and I tended to get slack.

This suggests to me that ...

a) my good habits need to have stronger internal cues, rather than just external ones, and

b) just as my good habits were easier to break in a new environment, perhaps bad habits might also be easier to break in a new environment. Need to quit smoking or something? Maybe combine the effort with a change of routine, or a trip. Might help.

Hmmm. But then, of course, you'll probably need to come home at some point and it will be easy to slip into the old habits, unless - of course - you are moving permanently. But even if you return home, at least you get a headstart!

Friday, June 03, 2011

Jesus Curses the Fig Tree - A Contemplation

This is a "contemplation" on Mark 11 and Matthew 21, the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree on the road between Bethany and Jerusalem. I have tried to remain true to the text, but have tried to picture what it might have been like. I follow the chronology of Mark, as I outline here.

John and I were walking and talking with the other ten, behind Jesus. We didn't want to bother him as it seemed he had much on his mind. We were going back to Jerusalem from Bethany, where we had spent the night.

We spoke of how Jesus had been received the previous morning. The palm branches, the "Hosannas." It had been so wonderful! Jesus was going to be king! But we also remembered Jesus talking about suffering and dying in Jerusalem. But that seemed so unlikely now. Didn't the crowd's happy welcome prove that? Maybe He would die after a long reign? But how could that be? Wasn't the Messiah to remain forever?

With the rising sun still low in the eastern sky, the dust puffing at our footsteps was still cool on our feet, and we shared our deep thoughts as we looked down at our feet, which were quickly gathering dust.

But then, from the corner of my eye, I saw Jesus step through the grass and brush on the edge of the road and walk toward a tree a short distance away.

I glanced over. I could see it was a fig tree. I recognized the big, bright green leaves.

"Does anyone want a fig?" I asked.

"No," Thomas said. "There might be a few figs, but it is not really the season yet. Probably just early-figs now, and I don't really like them."

We walked on past, still engrossed in our talk, as Jesus pushed leaves aside and searched for something to eat.

Then I heard him say, "May no one ever eat fruit from you again!" and the crunching sound of His feet on the drying grass as He came back to the road behind us.

I guessed that he hadn't found anything, figs or early-figs, and if there were no early-figs, then later there would be no figs at all. Pretty worthless tree.

He soon caught up with us and led us in to Jerusalem, to the Temple, which was full of men buying and selling in the courtyard. Jesus chased them out and spent the day arguing with the chief priests and teachers.

We left Jerusalem that evening after dusk, very tired; the stars were out as we passed the fig tree on our way to Bethany and I did't give it a glance or a thought.

But in the morning as we returned to Jerusalem, Peter cried out, "Rabbi, behold! The fig tree which you cursed has withered."

I hadn't even noticed, but now we looked. The tree was so different that I didn't think it was the same tree, but as I looked to the left and right I realized it was where the living tree had been yesterday, and there was no other fig tree around. There, by the side of the road in the bright morning sun, was the fig tree, dead, its branches and broad leaves a crackly brown. It had to be the same one.

I walked over, took a leaf in my hand and pressed it. It crumbled. I snapped a branch. It was dusty dry.

Jesus watched from the road as we gathered around the tree, then, as we we walked back, He held up his hand. We stopped and looked at Him.

“Have faith in God," he said. "Truly I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, 'Be taken up and cast into the sea,' and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says is going to happen, it shall be granted him."

We stared at Jesus for a moment, taken aback, for who except Jesus has faith like that?

Not I. At least... not very often, though as I think about it there have been times when I have had such faith - not by trying hard to have it, but when the spirit of God has been upon me and I knew without effort and without a doubt - and then I did indeed receive what I requested.

Jesus Curses the Fig Tree

In studying to write the "contemplation" about Jesus cursing the fig tree, I studied the two accounts of the incident, recorded in Mark 11 and Matthew 21. From that study I believe that Matthew's is a more condensed version. I show how I believe these two accounts fit together in the table above. (You may need to click the table to make it large enough to read.)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Clattering Train

I found this poem quoted in Winston Churchill's book, The Gathering Storm, and it keeps coming to mind. Even though Churchill was talking about the rise of Nazi Germany, the poem seems frighteningly contemporary - as if it is speaking to the world today, though may God forbid.

Who is in charge of the clattering train?
The axles creak and the couplings strain,
and the pace is hot and the points are near,
and sleep hath deadened the driver's ear,
and the signals flash through the night in vain,
for death is in charge of the clattering train

There is even an excellent video of actor Albert Finney portraying Churchill reciting the poem.

The poem is abbreviated from a longer poem called "Death and his Brother Sleep," which, according to one source I found, is by Edwin J Milliken in Punch Magazine.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Culture Change and Social Justice in Christian Ministry

I am frankly quite concerned about the new focus on "culture change" as a priority in Christian ministry, and it might allay my fears if its advocates could answer these questions:

1. I read a long article by culture-change advocates and was left with this question: What do you want culture to be like? "Change," in and of itself, can be good or bad, so please spell out what you mean. Tell me as exactly as you can HOW you believe culture needs to change. How can I know if I should agree with you if you don't say where you are going?

2. By your emphasis on long-term - sometimes "many-generation" - change, are you assuming that human institutions are perfectable? Really, I don't know; I'm just asking.

3. Related to the previous question. Are you quietly slipping amillenialism into your philosophy? Again, just asking.

4. I am of the view that C.S. Lewis advocated, that individuals are eternal and societies are temporary, so human beings are priceless. Do you see the salvation of individuals as more, less, or equally important to the reform of cultures?

5. I am a bit concerned about your advocacy of "community." By "community," are you including the government? If so, are you suggesting the government should have some additional authority? If so, what?

6. Related to the previous point, the term "social justice" has been used in the past by socialist and communist groups to advocate for governmental redistribution of wealth and an overiding of the market. Are you using the term in the same sense?

7. Regarding Christian missions, in the past Western missionaries have been accused of imposing an I-know-what's-best-for-you cultural view on non-Western cultures. More recently mission leaders have attempted to maintain as culturally-neutral a stance as can be accomodated within the teachings of Scripture. In advocating "culture change" in Christian missions, are you suggesting a return to something more like the earlier view?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

A Defense of the West

Self-flagellation is not dead. It is practiced today in the West, and in the church, with a diligence that would put a medieval flagellist to shame.

The flagellist of medieval times beat himself for sins he had committed. The Western flagellist of today beats himself for sins that someone else has committed.

And unlike the medieval flagellist - who no-doubt believed that others should beat themselves for their sins as well - the modern Western flagellist believes that he alone is guilty, and everyone else is innocent. Or, more correctly, he believes that his culture alone is guilty, and all other cultures are innocent.

Though he does not acknowledge it, the new Western flagellist beats himself because his culture kept records, while others did not. The Western flagellist beats himself because his culture was active while others were not.

Does it never occur to those of you who look into Western and church history and find nothing but fault that maybe we kept better records than most of the rest of the world? And that those records include our failures?

Does it never occur to you that a people or culture that actually does things is a culture that will make mistakes and commit sins? Rocks do not commit sins.

Do you who find a never-ending stream of faults with Western culture and the missionary enterprise find similar evils in any other culture? Or are those somehow sanctified because that is "their culture" or that is "how their faith is worked out?" Why the double-standard?

Do you have no capability of seeing the big picture? For all the sins of the West, for all the sins of the church and its missionary enterprise, do you really, truly, fail to see the amazing and overwhelmingly positive things that have come out of the last few hundred years of Western history and missionary endeavor?

You are insulters of noble, faithful and brave men and women who have gone before you! You tear down, you destroy, you find nothing but fault, and then you - those Christians among you - burst into tears that the church in the West is dying.

Foolish men! Why should anybody want to be part of the ugly faith that YOU have portrayed?

And you still don't understand.

The very criteria you appropriately apply to other cultures - that we should try to understand, that we should try to see the good - you abandon when it comes to your own culture.

Every other culture of the world gets a pass, but for your own culture you demand a perfection that nothing in human history or in your Bibles should lead you to expect.

You seem to think you need to adopt other people's sins because you haven't enough of your own, but let me assure you, flagellants, you have plenty of sins!

You want to flagellate yourselves? Then flagellate yourselves for painting a false and ugly picture of the West and of Christianity. Frederick the Great told his painter to paint him "warts and all." You go further; you just paint warts.

And flagellate yourselves for your double standard, for invariably accusing the West and excusing anybody and everybody else.

I'm sick of it. Go tell some other culture how evil the West is - perhaps you will find a receptive audience there.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Jesus Calms the Storm (Mark 4: 35-40)

This is a "contemplation" on Mark 4:35-40, the story of Jesus calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee. I have tried to remain true to the text, but have tried to picture what it might have been like.

Like the other fishermen on the Sea of Galilee, I hoped that Jesus and some of his disciples would sail with me after he spoke to the crowds on the eastern shore, but I did not really expect he would pick my boat. It is hardly the finest on the lake.

And while I still don't know why, Jesus did pick my boat, and I remember being so pleased and honored.

I shoved the boat away from the shore just as the sun dipped below the horizon. In the afterglow the air was still warm and I could see Jesus was tired. He sat on a cushion in the stern and gave me a smile, but quickly I saw his eyes droop. Then he layed down, with his head on some netting, pulled a sailcloth over himself, and fell asleep. I was not surprised; he had spent the day speaking in the heat of the sun, much of the time while standing in another boat - my cousin Jonathan's.

A gentle breeze came up from the west, and we tacked into the wind. I looked on either side and in the dimming light saw the other boats, some carrying disciples and some, vering away to the northwest, carrying people going home to Capernaeum. We "captains" smiled and waved at each other.

I was so happy.

I stood in the stern just in front of Jesus and behind the disciples, who spoke quietly in the bow. I had one hand on the tiller and another on the line to the boom, pushing on the tiller and keeping the sail taut, the breeze in my face, the cool of the early evening on my cheek and the gentle but powerful tug of the wind swishing my little boat through the water. I felt very responsible!

Jesus' words went through my mind. I wondered about the mustard seed he had mentioned. We had a mustard plant outside my house, and it was very large, though, as Jesus said, it started very small. I guess he meant that big things have very small beginnings. I wondered if what he said was the beginning of something big, or if maybe He was the beginning of something big. Something big and good.

Also, he said we should put our lamp on a lampstand where everybody can see it.

What did that mean?

The wind had begun to blow brisk and cool. The waves slapped against the side of my boat. It was dark now and I looked up, but could not see as many stars as a few minutes before. Clouds. It made me nervous. Then I looked back to see Jesus still sleeping peacefully. I was glad he was resting.

I guessed that when he told us to put our lamps on a lampstand he meant that we should let people see the good, so it inspires and guides them. I remember thinking that I should be a better man or I wouldn't be much of a guide.

The wind grew stronger - the tiller and the sail began fighting me - and I felt drops of rain on my face. It was what I had feared. Squalls come up quickly on the lake. I hoped this would not be a bad one.

But it was, and now we were far from shore.

The rain came down so heavily I could barely keep my eyes open, and waves slapped over the sides of the boat. Water swirled along the bottom, running to the stern and covering my ankles when the boat pitched up at the bow.

The four disciples were fishermen - they knew what was happening - and were already bailing, using a bucket and drinking cups.

I looked back. Jesus was still asleep, completely covered with the sailcloth. Perhaps he couldn't yet feel the water, but surely the pitching would awaken him.

But it didn't.

The wind became violent and John and I reefed the sail. The bare mast swung violently in the storm and the water was becoming deep in the bottom of the boat. It was hopeless to navigate, so I tied down the tiller and began to bail with the others.

We needed every hand, but as I looked back at Jesus, he slept. I couldn't understand how he could sleep in this storm, but I was afraid to awaken him. I glanced at the disciples and could tell they felt the same way. As they bailed they would glance back at Jesus.

The water was at our calves and I was afraid we would sink in minutes.

Then Andrew waded back to the stern. I could see he was angry and I knew what he was doing.

He shook Jesus' shoulder.

"Teacher," he yelled over the storm, "Don't you care if we drown?"

Jesus pulled the sailcloth from his face and blinked as the rain splattered in his face, but he sat up, then, holding the tiller, he stood and raised an arm toward the sky.

"Quiet!" he said, "Be still!"

I thought for a moment that he was rebuking us for disturbing his rest, but then - swiftly and quietly - the wind died down and the waves receeded. In seconds hundreds of raindrops became tens, then just a few, and then none at all. And my boat floated gently on the water.

I stood in astonishment, ignoring the water which swirled about my legs.

Jesus looked at his disciples. "Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?"

I was glad Jesus didn't look at me; I was so close. And like the disciples, I just stared, even more frightened of Him than I was of the storm.

Jesus lay back on the cushion, pulled the sailcloth over his face and once again fell asleep.

It was silent in the boat.

I looked at Jesus for a moment and then at the sky, rapidly clearing, with the stars shining brightly. And at the sea, now gently lapping against the side of my boat. But as I looked down, the water was still cold around my legs.

Why I was so quiet I don't know, but I picked up a bucket and began bailing, pouring the water gently over the side of the boat. I don't know why I was so careful - if Jesus could sleep through that storm he could sleep through my bailing - but still, I felt I must be quiet.

I think the disciples felt the same way, because from the stern I could hear a whispered conversation. Just bits and pieces came to me, but I remember so clearly them saying: "Who is this? Even the water and the waves obey him!"

Friday, April 01, 2011

Atlas Shrugged: A Christian Perspective

For some reason I've been gravitating toward books on world disaster lately - maybe the state of the world is weighing on my mind or something. I have read Winston Churchill's The Gathering Storm, and Barbara Tuchman's The Proud Tower, and, most recently, Ayn Rand's classic, Atlas Shrugged, which describes the destruction of the United States purely through internal stupidity.

I came away from Rand's book with mixed thoughts. Since I'm a Christian, let me outline my thoughts below, grouped under "Things that are compatible with Christianity," and "Things that are incompatible with Christianity."

Things that are compatible with Christianity

~ Rand condemns the notion that "nothing is truly knowable." Amen to that! This is one of the scourges of modern society. That Jesus really lived, and really died for our sins, and really rose again are critical truths of Christianity, not mush. Though I'm sure she was an atheist, I applaud Rand for sticking up for truth.

~ She defends business-people making profits. One memorable passage is of a party in which academics of the "nothing is knowable" variety are at an industrialist's house stuffing their faces with hors d'ouvres that his work provided while all the time snearing at him and his "dirty" profits. Good for her!

- She applauds "greed," which I would strongly disagree with if I thought she really meant it, but I don't. Her heroine, Dagny, for instance, turns in horror from the offer of a free factory. If she was greedy, she would have grabbed it. What Rand means is that people who build things should be free to own them and enjoy them and make as much money from them as they want without the government sticking its nose in. I don't think the government should have nothing to do with the economy, but I mostly agree with her on that.

- When one character, Francisco d'Anconia, began railing against the Bible verse about the love of money being the root of all evil, I thought I disagreed. But as I read I realized that d'Anconia meant that he loved money as a tool of exchange, which is fine with me and not at all what the Bible objects to.

Things that are incompatible with Christianity

- Adultery. Rand seems to think that an adulterous relationship she describes is okay because the relationship was between equals, not a relationship between a noble man and a streetwalker. Christianity does not see this as a relevant difference.

- It seems every interaction in the book is based on trade. This works great in business interactions, but stumbles in personal relationships. In one case a man tells his lover that he bought her an expensive gem for purely selfish reasons - he wanted to see her with it on solely to please himself. Riiiight. I don't think turning daily courtesies and personal interactions into business exchanges is in the spirit of Christianity.

- In John Galt's long speech, Rand has him condemn the Christian idea of the nobility of "sacrifice." Galt seems to mean that if I need "A" (or think I need A), that doesn't give me a moral claim to require someone else to sacrifice by giving it to me. And A, by the way, may mean that person's possessions, time or effort.

Okay, I see a few interesting things here.

First, Rand is taking an overly narrow view of the Christian belief in sacrifice.

Yes, we are commanded to give - Christ is our ultimate example of self-sacrifice - but the Christian idea behind giving is to HELP, not to encourage dependency.

For instance, when I was in the Army, a guy in the barracks - "Rambo," I'll call him - was talking about another guy, "Bill," who had gone to the hospital from a drug overdose and was threatening to overdose again. Bill wanted out of the Army.

Rambo was furious that Bill might kill himself and as he headed out the door, going to Bill's room, he said, "I'm going to smack him upside the head!"

"Hit him one for me, too," I said.

The guys were surprised because that didn't sound like a very Christian thing to say, but it seemed to me then (and now) that a smack upside the head was the most loving and helpful thing to do for Bill.

Second, as I was reading Galt's speech I began to think of Paul's admonition that if a man won't work, he won't eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10).

I think the key here is the word "won't." In Atlas Shrugged, Rand portrays those who are perfectly capable of working, but won't - and these are exactly the people Paul is saying can just go hungry.

Even so, I think Christians need to give even to those people who won't work, but I think the very best thing we can give them is this message: Get up off your lazy butts and get to work!

For those who can't work, the "widows and orphans," as the Bible would describe them, those are the ones we Christians need to help with gifts of money or food or training, or whatever.

Having said that, I think Rand is right that giving is probably best left out of the government's hands. There is nothing noble about giving when the government forces you to give, and the opportunities for governmental corruption are innumerable, and even with the best of motives the way the government spends the money you "gave" often makes matters worse, as she describes so well. Simply put, I don't think people are so incompetent that they need the government's assistance to help the poor.

- Through Galt, Rand also objects to the Christian doctrine of original sin. She doesn't like it. Well, I don't either, but it's there. Reality has sharp edges. If you are interested, I have written more about it here.

- She condemns anything "spiritual," or "mystical," but spiritual and mystical mean something beyond the mere material, something you can't really touch or see or taste or sense on measuring tools. But this made her praise of logic and reason (with which I agree) rather confusing because logic and reason are just as intangible as the spiritual and mystical that she condemns.

- Rand seems to think Christianity (and every other religion) has been a hinderance to industrial development. I call "hooey" on this one, at least in regard to Christianity. Modern banking arose in the monasteries of the Middle Ages (The Victory of Reason, Rodney Stark); the term, "The Protestant Work Ethic," certainly gives no credance to the idea that Christianity breeds moochers; and there have even been whiney books written, such as one I tried to read, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, lamenting Christianity's role in founding capitalism. Even in Atlas Shrugged, when Rand has a character insult a hero, she slips and has the woman call him a "Puritan."

In conclusion, setting aside the gratuitous atheism and contempt for altruism, Atlas Shrugged is a very interesting but lengthy book with timely and valuable things to say about economics, governmental corruption, and freedom.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Escape to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-14)

This is a "contemplation" on Matthew 2:13-14, the story of the nighttime escape of Joseph, Mary and Jesus to Egypt. I have tried to remain true to the text, but have tried to picture what it might have been like.

He woke suddenly and alert.

The lamp was still burning and Mary was sitting in the corner sewing by its flickering light and humming quietly, the child beside her.

It hadn't been a bad dream. He'd had those before - waking with a gasp and sweat on his forehead - but still, though he felt he should be frightened, he wasn't. Perhaps he was getting used to angels.

No, you don't get used to angels appearing in your dreams.

It was certainly frightening the first time, though, when the angel told him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife. Strange that he just knew it was not some bizarre nighttime halucination, but an angel, a real angel. Maybe it was the reality of the experience, the clarity of the dream, that convinced him. It was astonishing, but not weird and disjointed, like so many dreams.

And this dream was the same way. It was as clear as a friend talking to him across his carpenter's bench. No, not a friend, more like the governor! It was frightening, like standing in front of a high official.

And this time the angel didn't give him comforting words, to do as his heart desired - to wed Mary. This time it was an order. Not exactly threatening, but in a tone that could not be mistaken, with an insistence that would not let him wait until morning.

"Get up," the angel said, "take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt."

It wasn't fear he felt, just urgency.

Joseph got up.

"What is it? Mary asked.

"We need to leave. Now."

"Now? But why?"

"I'll explain later. We need to pack and leave right away."

There was clothing, water skins, a bit of food, and, of course, the gifts the Magi had left for Jesus - gold, incense and myrrh. They would be useful for a trip to Egypt.

Mary wrapped Jesus in a blanket, and they slipped quietly out of the house. Joseph left a coin on the table for the landlord. It would more than pay for their rent.

He held the rope and led the donkey, with Mary and Jesus, through the town, the donkey's little feet clicking against the occasional stone.

The angel had warned that Herod meant to kill the child, so Joseph watched for soldiers, his heart beating wildly when he saw two guards talking. But they barely glanced as Joseph led the donkey past them.

At the edge of town he heard what he wanted before he saw it, the braying and chuffing of camels - a caravan, and, as he had hoped, a caravan to Egypt.

The magi's gold was useful. For a few gold coins, a packet of myrrh, and the donkey, Joseph purchased a trip.

He helped Mary and Jesus onto a kneeling camel.
"Joseph, where are we going?" Mary was insistent.

"Egypt," he said, climbing atop his own camel.

"Egypt? But why?"

He did not want to speak aloud. If he was overheard perhaps the caravan leader would turn them in to Herod for a reward, or perhaps he would be afraid of Herod and not want them in his caravan. So he held up his hand to Mary and looked at her, as if to say, "Be patient."

Roped head to tail, Joseph's camel to the back of Mary's, and hers to the camel in front of her, the train headed into the desert as the eastern sky turned pink, and then golden.

The sun rose and the shadows shortened and the camels plodded farther into the desert and Joseph's heart ceased its hammering, and Mary leaned back when she could, to talk, and when he thought nobody was watching he would lean forward and whisper bits of what the angel had said, and sometimes she heard but mostly she couldn't.

But that was all right. When they stopped for the night, then, near a flickering fire in the wilds of Sinai, he would whisper the story to her, and they would plan what to do in Egypt, and wait for the day when the angel would come again and tell them it was safe to return to Israel.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Keeping Church Flexible

At church today it occurred to me that though our church is more than 100 years old, we really don't have big fights about music, and I got to thinking about why.

First, I think the reason people get upset about changes in church music (or how communion is served, or any of a hundred activities that take place on Sunday morning) is that they become used to a particular way of doing things and it bugs their socks off when you change it on them.

I'm not innocent. For example, if I hear a remake of a classic song (Christian or otherwise) in which the artist has made some change, it grates my nerves. Logic can tell me all it wants that it's okay if the artist wants to try something a bit different, but all the time my mind is saying, "That guy is totally messing up that song!"

So how do you prevent grumpy people like me from getting bugged by changes at church?

Well, what my church does - and it seems to be fairly successful - is to make a point of changing things just a little bit almost every Sunday.

We don't sing exactly the same songs all the time. Sometimes there are new songs. We don't always play the organ or piano. Sometimes there is a choir and sometimes there isn't. We don't serve communion the same way every time. Sometimes people come up front; sometimes they are served in their seats; sometimes we take the bread and cup as a group and sometimes we take them when we receive them.

I think this flexibility helps me remember that it isn't the form that should be unchanging, but the Gospel itself.

So I guess if I was in charge of a church that was stuck in a debilitatingly rigid pattern, I might introduce one small change in one area for one Sunday, and tell people that it will be changed back the next week, perhaps saying, "Let's just try it and see how it feels." The next week it would be changed back and I'd introduce a small change in another area, again, just for one Sunday. And so forth.

The point here is not to say, "My way of serving communion is better than your way." After all, is it really a good idea to replace one rigid pattern for another? Rather, the idea is just to limber people up a bit and help them be a bit more receptive to new ways God may have of doing things.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Clarity in Marriage

Once, when a man and woman got married - at least in the United States - they understood their duties fairly well. The man would support his family and the woman would take care of the household. Clear, perhaps, but not very flexible.

Then, a few decades ago, things began to change and those roles stopped being well defined. Now, if, say, the wife hates cooking and the husband loves it, then no problem, he does the cooking and nobody sneers that he is doing "women's work." And if the wife wants to work outside the home, she can do that. Nobody raises an eyebrow.

The big advantage, of course, is that the new system is very flexible, and each task can be performed by the person who enjoys it most, or who dislikes it the least.

But there is a problem with the new system.

Let's say that the wife hates ironing, but decides early in their marriage to do it for a little while as a special treat. "I just want to show how much I love him."

She doesn't see ironing as her duty, as she might have in years gone by, because now there's nothing that says ironing is one of her duties. Now she may feel that she is doing something special.

But the husband thinks, "Oh, she's more traditional than I realized. Well, I'm okay if she does the ironing."

So now she is a bit miffed. She was doing him a favor but he is taking it for granted and handing her the shirt that needs to be ironed for tomorrow's meeting. Pretty nervy!

Or, let's say she is traditionally-minded and expects that when she marries she will be able to quit her job and that her husband will provide for her to stay home and take care of the household. But he was expecting a second income. Ouch!

So, years ago the problem was lack of flexibility; now the problem is expectations. When the roles were well-defined each partner pretty much knew what to do and what the other person was supposed to do. Now not so much.

So, my unasked for advice to couples planning to get married is this: Discuss what tasks each of you will do - making sure to cover them all - then write down who will do what.

I know, I know. You don't need to write it down because you trust your spouse, but trust isn't what I'm talking about. I'm talking about memory. We forget things - especially things that we find unpleasant - so being able to refresh your minds with a written agreement can be very helpful.

I'd like to end this by saying that this is what my wife and I did before we got married. Well, we didn't. We married when the marriage relationship was still rather traditional. But in retrospect, even though things have been good for us, it might have been a wise idea all the same.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

A New Year's Resolution for Mr. Obama

Dear Mr. Obama,

With a strong Republican showing in the last election you are not going to get anything done on the domestic front that the Republicans don't like.

So why not accomplish something internationally, something for which you could probably get bipartisan support.

What? China and Taiwan.

I can't see any reason why the U.S. should have bad relations with rising superpower, China, except for one left-over problem from the Cold War - Taiwan.

Mainland China wants Taiwan back and the U.S. Navy is preventing that. That made lots of sense when China had gone insane after the communist takeover, but China is no longer insane. It is no paragon of law and liberty, but it is not insane either.

So why not - while we still have a lot of influence in the area - persuade The Republic of China (Taiwan) and the People's Republic of China (mainland China) to sit down and start doing some serious negotiations on their future relationship, with the understanding that we don't intend to be stuck between them forever?