Tuesday, February 21, 2017

I'd Rather Be Ministering to the Lord


This Sunday the sermon was a reminder that our primary purpose in life is to worship God. In American church culture we often talk about serving God, ministering to others, studying the Bible, prayer, evangelism-- all good things. All things that help us in our relationship with God. All things that are expected, even required for us to follow Jesus. But we should not confuse all those things that are a help or a result of the worship of God with the actual worship of God. 

Perhaps that is too fine a point. After all aren't we supposed to "worship God with our lives." Well yes, of course. Everything we do can be an act of worship when we "practice the presence of God". We are, after all, told to present our bodies as sacrifices to God as our spiritual act of worship. I'm suggesting that it is good for us to remember that all the things we do in pursuit of worshiping God are in addition too the simple and pure act of holding God as the sole object of our worship. Is cleaning up your neighbor's yard an act of worship? It can be, if done for the purpose of Godly love. Is preparing a lesson for a small group worship? Sure. Singing, reading, praying, speaking, all these things can be acts of worship. What is important is that all of those things are rooted in a central concept of God our Creator held as the ultimate object of our affection.

All of that nuance and explanation comes down to a really simple point. I think we ought to spend some time doing nothing but worshiping God. This is basically prayer, but I mean a specific type of prayer where we are not asking for something or explaining something about ourselves to God. I mean a prayer where we gaze, the best we can, at God as we know him (knowing our conception falls short and He is greater than what we can conceive) and worship him. How much time should we spend doing this? I have no idea. I think the ultimate goal would be "all the time." There are things in this world, of course, that prevent that, but maybe it is a start to remember while we're doing all that other stuff that there is something else we ought to be doing. It's kind of like those bumper stickers that say, "I'd rather be...*insert your favorite pass time*" You know, "I'd rather be playing golf" or "I'd rather be spoiling my grandkids" etc.

We acknowledge that this world requires us to attend to other things. Perhaps it is our sinful nature or "the old selves" that requires it. Maybe it is God's plan to give us lesser things to help us understand and appreciate the Greater Thing. In any case, we are for a time, stuck with it. Yet, while we are attending to these lesser things we should be always mindful that there is a Greater Thing. As much and as often as we are able, we are breaking from these lesser things to catch all the glimpses we can of the Greater Thing himself. Those glimpses are what allow us to live the other parts of our lives as "a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God".

I don't want to diminish the "daily living" aspect of worship, but I would like to advocate that we set aside time to remember what we are made for: worship pure and simple. Set aside time in prayer that is for no other purpose than to meditate on and express in your heart the beauty, truth and greatness of our God. If that really is our ultimate purpose then time spent doing it will never be wasted. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Malachi

I joked with my church the other day about the pronunciation of Bible words. If you didn't grow up in church and you came across the word "Malachi" how would you pronounce it? Mah-lah-CHEE might make sense. Mah-lah-KEY. MAL-uh-she, maybe. There are many possibilities. Which one is right?

All good Christians know the proper pronunciation is MAHL-uh-Khigh. One might snicker at a mispronunciation of such a word. But how do you know that is how it is pronounced? We look at our way of pronouncing it as the definitive, correct pronunciation. The problem with that is that nobody actually knows how it was pronounced at the time. We have no recordings. There are no philological (or phonological?) descriptions of the language (or any language I know of) from that time. When people wrote in a language they assumed you knew how to pronounce it. The Hebrew language has been well preserved in written form, but it was not uniformly spoken from the time the Bible was written until today. Even by the time of Malachi himself it is possible that most Jews spoke mostly Aramaic. Pronunciation can change quickly as we can see even from the relatively short time that English has existed. It seems to especially undergo changes when peoples are displaced or invaded. That's one of the reasons English has lots of weird spellings and pronunciations. It is a language that has been transported around the world through colonization and globalization. Hebrew has been through quite a bit of disruption as well. So it would be impossible with 100% certainty to recreate the original pronunciation of ancient Hebrew. Incidentally, the closest you would hope to come would be to hear a modern Hebrew speaker pronounce it. Which, through the magic of the internet you can now do! (How to say "Malachi" in Hebrew) Go listen. I'll wait.

Turns out that American Christians might be off the mark in their pronunciation of Malachi. Hold on though. Even the Hebrew speaker's pronunciation isn't definitive. It might have the best chance of being right since there is at least a link between ancient and modern Hebrew, but there's no way of knowing if it is any closer to the truth than anything else we can come up with. If that doesn't blow your mind enough, think about this. There's no reason to think that the way Moses pronounced "Malachi" would be the same as the way Malachi pronounced "Malachi." They were 1000 years apart! Maybe Moses said, "Hamalicky"  and Malachi said, "Myalisgee". Someone who studies language development (philology) could probably make a better guess, but it would still just be a guess.

One other trivial knowledge tidbit. In modern script the name Malachi looks like מַלְאָכִי
You can see an image of a commentary on Malachi from the Dead Sea Scrolls. You'll notice the writing is very different. The the Dead Sea Scroll document was written up to 400 years after Malachi lived. And it is probable that Malachi even used a different alphabet than those who had gone before him. This means that if David time traveled 600 or so years to Malachi's time (or, even worse, 3000 yrs to our own time), he would probably be unable to read the Psalms that he had written!

So get down off your high horse, you Bible-name-pronunciation police.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Root of the Toot

My six-year-old son had a bike wreck (he's okay), and amidst his tears he asked me why, if God can do anything, do we have owiees? That's really the question that sums up all of life, isn't it? How you answer that question sums up your religious beliefs.

I told him that owiees are just a part of what is wrong with the world. They do serve some good. They let us know that there is a problem. If your knee didn't hurt when you scraped it you might not take care of it, and it could get worse. If it didn't hurt when you bonked your head then we wouldn't try to not bonk our heads, and we'd probably all be senseless by now. So pain and suffering reminds us that there are bad things in this world that need fixing.

Being in his fourth year of The Gospel Project he knew that I was talking about the Fallen Nature of mankind. With a pained look on his face he sniffled, "But I don't remember doing anything bad today."

I hugged him quickly and told him that it wasn't his fault. Bad things happen in this world to people whether they are bad or not. "So somebody else was bad, and I'm being punished?"

"You're not being punished," I reassured him. Then my skills as a preacher kicked in. I thought of an illustration so... illustrative that I couldn't believe it. Then I had a moment of doubt. Experience tells me that whenever you share an off-the-cuff illustration it has a chance of failing utterly. Especially when speaking to kids. It is a risk I decided to take.

"When you are in a room full of people and one person toots, who smells it?"

His countenance changed from that of a wronged party to the face that all children give their dads when they are unsure of his motives. He was probably thinking, "This sounds like a dad-joke because it involves a bodily function, but that seems out of place in a theological conversation." The fate of my brilliant illustration hung upon the edge of a knife. I put on my best expression of wisdom and tender whimsy.

Quickly his face brightened to an even-handed smirk. The answer to my riddle hit home in his mind. Everyone smells it! Just being a part of this world makes us partakers of the stink-inducing fracture that has taken place between God and man. Ok, so I don't really know if he got it or not, but he stopped crying. It is possible that just thinking about tooting and smelling and stuff made him for a moment forget about the pain. Either way, I'm counting this as a daddy victory.


Next time perhaps I'll just refer him to The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Prayer

Father,

You are a great and awesome mystery to me.
Ageless, not merely old.
Distant, vast, resounding, overwhelming,
Yet so near.

Near like the atoms that make me.
Near like the blood that flows through my body.
Close like the sound of wind in my ear.
Close like heat from the water in a hot shower.

The Book tells about a promise you made to a man named Abram-
To bless him and his descendants forever.
To bless him and make him a blessing to all the families of the earth.
All the families of the earth!

I don't know anything about how or why you do what you do
Other than the stories you've given us,
The Truth you've shouted at my heart,
The Beauty you've whispered in my ears.

But my soul rushes to you,
I run to join you like a child joins a parade -
Or would if they could.
I fly to you joyfully seeking to be blessed and to be a blessing.
Oh, Father, bless me and all the families of the earth.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Female Computer

Annie Easley

As promised, here is some info on an interesting person you may never have heard of. I'll admit, most people might not be that interested in the accomplishments of Annie Easley. She wrote or contributed to such riveting works as Effect of Turbulent Mixing on Average Fuel Temperatures in a Gas-Core Nuclear Rocket Engine and Performance and Operational Economics Estimates for a Coal Gasification Combined-Cycle Cogeneration Powerplan. I don't think those have ever been on Oprah's Book Club. But if you are a fan of science or rockets or space or computers, then you should be glad for the contributions of Easley. 

What I like about her story is how she followed her interest and excelled simply by being really good at her job. She was pursuing pharmacy but ran out of options as far as education goes. So in 1955 she applied for a job as a computer. At that time complex math was still done by humans rather than machines and the NACA (predecessor to NASA) needed lots of computing power for the advanced research it was doing in aeronautics. So this southern Black lady with two years of college toward a pharmacy degree was given a government job doing math (for those lazy engineers, I guess). That was the start of a career that would have implications for the Space Race and the modern computer age!

I loved what she had to say when asked about being one of only a few minorities in the organization:

 I didn't feel like I'm a minority, I'm less. I just have my own attitude. I'm here to work. You may look at me, someone else may look at me, and see something different, but that's okay. But I'm out here to do a job and I knew I had the ability to do it, and that's where my focus was, on getting the job done. I was not intentionally trying to be a pioneer. I wanted a job, I wanted to work. But it was never a "poor me," though I know I'm not so unaware that I don't know what's going on around me. Remember my mom said, "You can do anything you want to, but you have to work at it," and that was part of it. With her strong teachings, I was able to do it.*
 And also:
When people have their biases and prejudices, yes, I am aware. My head is not in the sand. But my thing is, if I can't work with you, I will work around you. I was not about to be so discouraged that I'd walk away. That may be a solution for some people, but it's not mine. So yes, I'm sure, I, like many others, have been judged not on what I can do, but on what I look like. *
 If you have time and interest you really should go read the whole interview at the NASA archive. She has some great stories about the early days of NASA. She also has an inspiring outlook on life. The interviewer asked her about seeing the contemporary results of some of the work she did on emerging technologies, like batteries for electric vehicles, she said, "I'm happy at the time when I see it, but my big thing now is trying to learn to snowboard."

At the time she was 68! Yeah, yeah, I helped usher in the era of electric cars, but what's really neat is carving fresh pow. Ha!

So there you go. Another American we can be proud of.--a little girl whose mother told her she could accomplish anything if she would work at it. Looking back at her life she was very proud of all the work that she did and cherished the memory of the people that she worked with. That's the kind of story worth passing on don't you think?



Tuesday, February 2, 2016

BLACK HISTORY MONTH: What does a wrench have to do with it?

Okay, so here's the deal. One of the things about being white is that every year there's this thing called Black History Month. As a white man no one has ever told me what I'm supposed to do during this month. What generally happened each year growing up was a lesson or two in school about George Washington Carver and all the wonderful things he did with peanuts. Then throughout the month I would hear a few juvenile white folks grumble about not having a "White History Month" and not seeing the big deal about the achievements and contributions of African Americans. My black friends didn't say much at all about the month. I guess because it would have been kind of awkward. Or maybe it was embarrassing because all anyone seemed to know about Black contributions to society was the many uses of peanuts.

So now that I'm tentatively acknowledging that I am indeed a "grown up" I'm realizing that I don't have to let anyone else dictate what I do for Black History Month. It is completely up to me to decide. I recently randomly came across a short documentary on Bessie Coleman on the Smithsonian Channel. She was the first Black (and Native American) female to get her pilot's license. I found her story surprising, inspiring and just plain cool. And instead of thinking about the social ramifications of race and all that, I simply felt...proud. Yes, that's right, I'm proud of Bessie Coleman. What right do I, a white man, have to feel proud about Bessie Coleman, a black woman who died 90 years ago? Well, she's an American, for one thing! And furthermore she's a human being, and what do you know I am too! We have a lot in common. We both have faced the struggles that are common to all people. We both have asked ourselves, "What can I do with my life?" She stands as an example of the American spirit. She was an innovator with courage, gumption and creativity. That is a legacy that I want to be a part of.

Well, this feeling of pride melted into a feeling that is hard to explain. I felt like I had walked into a room where I'm not allowed. Was it right for me to horn in on African American legacy and claim it as my own? What foolishness! Somewhere along the way I bought into a lie perpetuated by who-knows-who (perhaps no one in particular) that we live in a separated society. The lie says that what's theirs is theirs and whats ours is ours. Perhaps the very celebration of Black History Month made me believe the lie. I believe that Black History Month is actually a good corrective to a great evil in our society. It reminds us to look back at our stories and remember that there were people who went unnoticed in their own time BECAUSE they were a minority. It reminds us that there have always been people willing to look past their current situation and rise above their expected lot in life. Those stories should inspire all of us. The danger comes when White folks think of it at "their" history month, and when Black folks think of it as "our" history month. The history belongs to all of us. It is ours to claim or to be ignorant of. I'm suggesting that ALL of us can take pride in the accomplishments and contributions of ALL of those who went before us? I think it would be much more fun. So if you are interested, check back here this month. I'll be posting things I come across that elucidate the contributions of some people you might never have heard of before.

For today, I highly recommend the Smithsonian documentary linked above. Or you could go read the Wikipedia entry. If nothing else, you should read about her tragic death. It is quite shocking. SHOCKING I tell you. I won't spoil it, but I will warn you that it is, of course, a sad ending and a wrench plays a major role.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

When I see unspeakable evil...

How do you feel when you read the news and see that human beings are doing profanely evil things? The response I see on social media is usually outrage. We get angry. We ask "why?" and we seek to place blame. How could someone do such a thing? Then we go on to imagine how we would punish the responsible parties if we were in charge of the situation. We regret that we live in a relatively ordered society where justice comes about slowly if at all. We end up mad at the perpetrator, mad at the "system" for allowing it, mad at our society for harboring it, mad at God for not preventing it. We end up mad and frustrated.

'cause pirates are evil
I feel those things, but I also feel something else. Maybe you do too. I feel sorry. Recently, every time I read about some new horror brought about by a government or a corporation or a mom or a  coach, I find my self apologizing to God. I feel really sorry that we are this way. I feel very much desperate to see humanity saved from itself. I think, when I see evil and I respond with righteous indignation that it is only wishful thinking. I am repulsed, because I like to think that I would never stoop to such inhumanity. Seeing the evil outside of myself, I am for a moment distracted from the evil that is inside me. I truly believe, for a while anyway, that given the same life situation I would have acted completely differently and avoided the long string of errors that so many others have fallen into. Ultimately I know that is a lie. I have evil desires and deathly thoughts that haunt my flesh. By the Grace of God--literally!--I have seen those desires and thoughts for what they are. They are a result of my own death. They come from the ghost that Paul called "the flesh" that haunts me until the time of my death. When I think about it, it seems like death and evil are really the same thing. Evil is death foreshadowed, and death is evil's ultimate consummation.

These ideas, as distasteful as they are, do teach me something. There is something special about humans. We must know that we are made for something better than this. We inherently know that there is something wrong with death. For all that we've been through over millennia we've never fully grown accustomed to the fact that we all die. We have records of billions of humans just like us who have died before us, and yet we still fight against it. If evolution is the only guiding process for our creation and development, then why haven't we evolved in such a way as to be at peace with our fate? Or on the other hand why do we recognize evil at all? I'm not saying this is proof against evolution or anything. I'm sure there are all kinds of plausible theories about the answers to my questions. What I'm saying is that when I look at our situation I see something bigger at work.

I see that we as humans are above-all
shocked by "inhumanity." When people commit atrocities against their fellow humans we feel that we have all lost something. Of course, we have. We tend to think of ourselves as individuals, which is true; but, we are also part of a whole. When the Bible says, "through one man sin entered the world," it is not just saying that Adam had an influence on all future generations. Through one man an entire species became guilty before God. Call God a racist (speciesist?) if you want to, but in the bigger scheme of things we are accountable for all the sins of humanity. Anytime a human commits an act of evil it was done by "one of us." Whether we want them to represent us or not that's the way it is.

Think about this, when an animal attacks a human our reaction depends on how "human" the animal is. When a wild lion attacks a human we feel sadness for the human and maybe fear of the lion, but we aren't really angry with the lion. It was after all a wild animal just doing what wild animals do. But when a dog attacks a human we feel, to a larger degree anyway, outrage. Dog's are much more "human" in that they live with us and seem to respond with person-like emotions. I guess we feel like they ought to know better since they are integrated into human society. When a dog acts inhuman it is seen as a betrayal.

How much more so are we repulsed by humans behaving inhumanely? We'd like to believe that such things can't happen, yet we know all too well that inhumanity lives inside of each of us. There is a betrayer embedded in all of our psyches, and we have a fear that the betrayer is trying to run the ship. We see it in others and the fear of our own evil makes us react with passion. Understanding this, when I see unspeakable evil, I am driven to my knees in humble prayer.

Father forgive us, we know not what we do.