Tuesday, January 11, 2022

The Way to White Rock


You take the tracks for like a mile, mile and a half,

keeping your eye out for that path through the sumac,

veering off to the right. Skirting the junkyard,

its great mountain of old tires, its piled rusty cars,

you cross a low swampy patch on a walkway of sinking boards.

The creek is next, and the flat stepping stones

we used to say were placed there by Indians.

Across the creek the path slopes upward, getting steep.

You pass a few back yards with barking dogs,

winding your way, crickets scattering at your feet,

before you come at last to the crest. 

     Have a seat,

your back against that boulder someone painted white,

fishing that peanut butter sandwich out of your pack.

You have reached the rim of your valley, of your world.

That cluster of rooftops in the distance is your town.

Your Mom stands over the sink, wondering

now where’s he gotten to? The sun

slides westward, drifting, and you drift too,

till somewhere a firehouse whistle blares, a double blast,

reminding you in code it’s late, it’s late,

and you’ll never make it back before dark. 

On those tree-lined streets so far below

the kids are thumping home for supper.

The long day for them has been 

wild with daring choices.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Wright on Galatians

 I've been reading Wright's new commentary on Galatians (AMZ). It's everything you could expect from a commentary by N. T. Wright. Vivid argumentation, memorable metaphors, engaging the intellect and the heart as well, and, yes, faith-building.

I was well into it before I realized this was a book I needed to be marking up--underlining, bracketing, side-starring. Now I read with pencil in hand.

I know folks who can't stand Wright, think he's a heretic, a danger to the church, etc., but I just don't see it. I have mostly read his more popular work, Simply Jesus, How God Became King, The Day the Revolution Began, Surprised by Hope, and have found them to be greatly inspiring. His understanding of "the gospel" and it's implications for our world is crucial.

Thinking about Wright's controversial opinions brings up a memory. I was a new Christian and had just started attending a Lutheran church (an LCMS church, to be precise). An older woman gave me a verse-by-verse commentary on Mark, one that was put out by the denom's on publishing wing, to get me started thinking about the Scriptures in the approved way.

I quickly soured on the book, though, because it had literally only one take-away for every single verse of Mark. That was of course: we're saved by faith and not by works!

Even as a baby Christian I knew that that couldn't be right. I could see that the commentary was grinding its nearly 5-centry old axe, sticking it to the Catholics. I suspected that the author of the Gospel of Mark was probably not focused on the same thing Luther was focused on 15 centuries later, and I suppose that made me a budding Wrightian right off the bat!

Anyway, a fine commentary. I highly recommend it.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

A word about Penal Substitutionary Atonement

 I like this piece on Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA), by Michael F. Bird.

I too get a cringy feeling from some of the language around this topic, when it gets to talking about God pouring out his wrath on Jesus. Bird's piece is useful to me, because it kind of helps to differentiate the baby from the bathwater, if you know what I mean. 

Bird's piece returns PSA to its rightful place in the mosaic. Does it sometimes feel like it has been taken from that rightful place and magnified, even made to be the center, the main thing, in the great mosaic of Biblical theology?

Sometimes it's even made to seem like the Gospel itself. While the cross is certainly a central element of the Gospel, that doesn't make PSA the Gospel. The lineaments of the Gospel and of PSA are not the same.

This is a theme I'm probably going to come back to from time to time. Bird's point that PSA is not a feature element of any of the early-church preaching found in Acts is telling, I think. The Gospel is much bigger than PSA, and if we seem to highlight atonement we often thereby seem to demote the life of Jesus, hiss resurrection, and his current ministry, along with the grand purpose of our trinitarian God that arches over all of this. Instead we get, believe in PSA and you'll go to heaven!

Btw, I'm currently reading and enjoying Bird's commentary on Romans. Recommended.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

On blogging again . . . maybe

 Once I was a blogger. I posted my ruminations almost every day. I had a lot to say and I tried to say it well. I tried to take the process seriously, because I believed (and still believe) that writing well helps you think well. 

In that sense I wrote mostly for my own benefit, but that is not to say I didn't have readers. Maybe I only got up to #10,000 in terms of blogging popularity, but I made an effort to connect with other bloggers, to get included in their blogrolls, etc. Once I even met a guy who recognized me from my blog!

All that was a longish time ago. A few things happened to kill my blogging habit. For one, another habit took over, a habit called Facebook. Also, I determined to stop offering up critiques and complaints on my blog, which actually left me with little to say. Over the ensuing years I tried numerous reboots and rebrands (i.e. name-changes), trying to kickstart a renewed sense of purpose, but to no avail. 

Of course something similar had happened to many other bloggers around the same period. Blogging itself became passe, as everybody moved to the Twitterverse. The personal blog is almost dead. But I recently came across  Alan Cross' Telling a Better Story.

This is old-school blogging. Alan explains his intentions right up front. He's been a successful writer in many formats, but he's getting back to his roots with a blog that sounds like a place for him to think through ideas and let the writing process itself help him the process of discovery.

I thought I'd go back to my roots and the very first way I began to write years ago - with a simple Blogger account. No frills. Nothing impressive. Just thoughts and words and a desire to see where this takes me as I drill down back to the beginning when my words were read by just a handful of people. I have no particular audience in mind, but I want to get better at writing, and that happens by reading and writing more and doing so freely, so this seems like a good way to start ... again. 

That last sentence. That's was what I hoped blogging would do for me. Not only that it would help me to "get better at writing," but also (and this goes hand in hand) to get better at thinking. 

I'm going to try this again. Ominously, this is a bit of a spur-of-the-moment decision, but let's just forget about that. For the moment, I'm thinking it's a good idea. I'm going to focus on the Bible and matter related to the Gospel of Jesus Christ; on the Christian faith, on thankfulness, and the nourishing and encouragement of the gifts of the Spirit, etc. I'll talk about the books I'm reading, the ideas and thoughts of others that intrigue or excite me, and try to break things up now and then with some good music.


A word about myself. I'm an old guy. I've got arthritic knees. I remember the Kennedy assassination. I've been a believer for about 40 years, and have had many ups and downs. I'm not trying to build a brand or collect a following, only to think better thoughts, all the time. Selah.


Thursday, September 16, 2021

The Meek shall inherit?

 What then is meekness?


The answer seems complicated, perhaps because the simple meaning of the word, the meaning we all know, is one we recoil from. It does not seem like a virtue, something to be extolled or sought after. I have heard people try to substitute some more desirable trait in order to make meekness acceptable. “Meekness is courage,” they say, though clearly that is not the meaning of the word. No one, apparently, wants to be meek.


The dictionary says, “humbly patient or quiet in nature, as under provocation from others.”


So patience under provocation gives us a good handle. And the world is a provocating place, right? How patient under provocation will I be today? I’m less than optimistic! Provocation, in fact, is always our ready excuse. “You provoked me!”


Meekness is the opposite of assertiveness. Maybe a meek person doesn’t stand up for his rights and so he gets walked over by many. A meek person does not kick against the goads or rage maniacally against the dying of the light. Meek can seem weak, and maybe a recognition of our weakness lies behind meekness. The meek do not jockey for position, assume they deserve the honored seat at the table, or (alternatively) whine because they weren’t invited to the soiree. 


Ambition does not reside well with meekness. When ambition comes into the presence of meekness it is chastened, even embarrassed, and seeks a way out. The meek are not scrappers, strivers, or warriors. The meek do not envy the powerful or yearn for their power. The meek are not going to be in the vanguard of anyone’s revolution. The meek did not attend the January 6 rally in Washington or run through the streets of Portland tossing Molotovs. Neither are many of them fighting in anyone’s army. In a world run by the meek, there would never be war.


And finally, it is well to remember that the world will more often than not make doormats of the meek. The meek, it seems, are always the losers. And that’s why it’s so strikingly counter-intuitive, so shocking, when Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”


That’s just seems like pure nonsense. Either that or it’s the power of God in Christ. So when Jesus says, “The first shall be last and the last first,” it would not be wrong to think of these “last” as the meek. The ones who chose the lowest place at the table, the ones who the world scoffs at as wimps.


It’s the strong that inherit stuff, not the meek. It’s the go-getter, the assertive types, staking their claim and defending their turf, who come out on top. That’s our way of thinking. But to all this Jesus shrugs and says, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”


True repentance = true meekness.

Friday, January 22, 2021

On the prevalence of tosh

 Reasonable people agree that on most issues "reasonable people can disagree." 

But what we have today is the choice by both major political factions, on every issue, not even to attempt to engage with the critique of the other side, but simply to delegitimize it as "radical," "communist," "far right," "far left," etc. In other words, to rule it out, as off limits, a matter that is outside the bounds of "reasonable people." The range of available alternative views becomes, by this means, narrower by the day. 

This is the predominant tactic, the preset, of both sides on almost every issue. This is why almost every conversation on matters political (from impeachment to minimum wage law to border security to the Electoral College to gun rights) winds up sounding like complete tosh. 

The idea of weighing pros and cons has become a quaint anachronism. Advocates for one position simply rule out alternative views as partisan (implying that only their own view is the result of objective analysis). In this rhetorical move we see the glimmer of an authoritarian new day, when only the views of one side are available to the public. "Reasonable people" turn out to be progressives only or conservatives only, and every complex issue is trimmed to neatly fit the prevailing view.

Barrack Obama was a subtle practitioner of this art, and Donald Trump an un-sublte one. Perhaps it is asking to much to expect anything else from politicians, but the rest of us might try to be more open-minded. Still, I expect nothing but partisan tosh.


Thursday, January 21, 2021

The Chimera Called Unity

 I thought President Biden's inauguration speech was quite good. The rhetoric was generally hopeful without being "soaring," patriotic without absurd hyperbole, humble and yet determined. Most of all it left an impression of the man himself, which may be its most important accomplishment. The man himself seems genuine, earnest, determined, and also humble (a refreshing change). 

I thought the weakest part of Mr. Biden's speech was his central theme of unity. Not only is any sort of real unity nothing more than a fleeting pipe dream, but the American political system does not depend on it. In fact, politics is a means for dealing with inevitable disunity. This is a point that Madison made strongly in his debate with Patrick Henry at the Virginia Ratifying Convention in 1788.

If we posit that unity is necessary for progress, as the president suggested, the question then becomes, unity about what? Since on every important political issue there is widespread and earnest disagreement, where does unity come in? I suppose it is in the agreement to vet our differences through politics, rather than, say, mob violence (which 2020 had altogether too much of). The agreement to in fact disagree but not dismiss the other side from the field of political play. There will always be another side. The glass will always be half-full. There is no arc of history leading to one side's chosen land, while the other side's is rejected forever.

To speak of the necessity of unity in order to make progress is, in this sense, not only naive but it embodies the potential for a kind of tyranny of the majority. Being out of sync with the majority opinion, or at least the opinion presently in power, becomes a kind of rebellion against blessed unity. It becomes unpatriotic. If progress requires unity, then our leaders will be forever frustrated (as they in fact have always been).

In our system progress requires debate, coalition building, and legislative compromise. To the extent that the president, as the executive head of only one branch of government after all, can rule apart from legislative enactments, he can keep up the pretense that compromise is not a necessary part of politics, and simply emulate a corporate CEO and issue edicts. To that extent he is not truly a participant in the Madisonian conception of governance at all, but one who has found an end-around, a way to over-ride all that. This was Donald Trump's method of governing, turning the legislature into nothing more than a supporting cast in the drama. 

I don't say all this in order to mount a rhetorical assault on the Biden presidency. I voted for him despite many political disagreements, knowing that disagreements get hashed out in our political system, if it is working as intended, in ways that don't entirely satisfy either side. But I voted for him because I thought he was a man of character, of basic human decency, and I thought that such was what America most needed in this moment. Mr. Biden's inaugural address only confirms that view. There will be plenty of time ti differ about politics, but I'm thankful for a good man in the White House.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Happy Inauguration Day!

Inauguration Day is always one of those rare days when people (some people, at least) set aside their normal and generally wise skepticism about political rhetoric and allow themselves to believe for a moment that the sun's coming out and the roses are blooming. The incoming president is very nearly treated like a savior in some circles. People don't actually sing "Happy Days Are Here Again," but they might as well. Expect a general tone of optimism and relief in the media, and that's not entirely unwarranted. 

Then there are the others who see the inauguration as the first day of a 4-year hellscape. Later today some Fox News ranter will pick apart Biden's inaugural address, providing the key talking-points of the resistance for the next couple of years. That's particularly sad, because as Rick Stearns said on Twitter, "no president deserves blind support or categorical rejection."

But balance, fairness, and historical memory are not hallmarks of our political conversation these days. We are in for the two-party spectacle of folks suddenly loving what they once hated and hating what they once loved (ie. executive orders, deficits, etc.). The only thing that will probably remain consistent is that America will not end its occupations of Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and other far-flung places. That's the one thing that never really changes.

So, pardon me while I do not suspend my skepticism, even for a day. Nevertheless, I am delighted that Trump is slinking away at last, and I am breathing a sigh of relief that we will now have an adult as president, someone whom Americans can take seriously and not be ashamed of. 

As for the Trump presidency, I am happy with his judges, with the Abraham Accords (that should be a bigger deal), and, let's see, with the fact that he gave an award to Ricky Skaggs. As for Biden, I am going to keep careful track and at least for a while quell the instinct to criticize. As we often forget, politics ain't everything. I pray for the wisdom of moderation and compromise in the new administration, and that somehow Joe Biden can tamp down the raging animus of these times. May God be with him and his whole team.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

The Sermon on the Level Place (10): Love Your Enemies

 I’m thinking about the Sermon on the Level Place in Luke 6. Going through it section by section, but trying to see how the whole thing hangs together. Here’s how it breaks down:

  1. 6:27-36 Love your enemies.

    1. 6:32-36 This is the behavior of the “sons of the Most High.”

  2. 6:37-38 What enemy-love looks like: Don’t judge. Be merciful. Forgive.

  3. 6:39-42 Two parables that illustrate the previous points.

  4. 6:43-45 Good tree/bad tree [Q: how does this fit?]

  5. 6:46-49 Build your house on a the Rock (not sand)

Love your enemies

Jesus is giving instructions for his disciples. “Love your enemies” is the overall theme. It sets a very high standard. Verses 27-31 sum it up. Later he is going to talk about a good tree and a bad tree bearing good and bad fruit. Our behavior flows from our essential being, who we are. Whatever pretensions to righteousness we may claim, the truth is in the fruit. So right here we can say that loving your enemies is the kind of fruit that a good tree produces.

That comment shows the connection between (4) & (1). My thinking is that that (2) thru (4) are subsets of (1), but I just want to take a closer look at that.

So Jesus in (1) sets this very high standard which I’m saying is the controlling idea at least for the next 3 sections. So we can put it this way:

Loving the way Jesus commands will look like this:

  • Loving enemies: being merciful.

    • Withholding judgment. [this is very clearly a subset of enemy-loving]

      • Judging others would be like a blind man leading a blind man.

      • It would be like presuming you have perfect sight and only others are the ones in need of an optometrist. Don’t be a hypocrite. Remove your log before you give lessons to others.

      • “no good tree bears bad fruit.” This implies a very serious question: how can I be a good tree? Because only then can I love my enemy as Jesus commands.

Here, being a good tree is like having an umimpeded vision (no log in the eye). It’s also like a sighted man leading a blind man rather than just another blind man leading him. Being a good tree is bearing good fruit, which is the fruit of loving the way Jesus proposes: a love that even extends to enemies. So Jesus is saying here you can’t do that if you’re not a good tree.

So here we have come to the point of a question: how can I be a good tree? I want to be that kind of tree, the kind that produces good fruit. In fact, Jesus is calling these prospective disciples to be good trees among their enemies. The whole sermon has been leading to this. The answer to this question will place you among the blessed or the woeful.

And in the final section Jesus gives his answer: build your house on the rock. I think we should see this as the summation, the drawing together of all that has come before, and the answer to the question, How can I bear good fruit? This is it. This is what the whole section beginning at verse 27 has been leading to.

  • Set very high bar for loving

  • Give examples of behavior that makes the bar

  • And behavior that falls short

  • Put special emphasis on the problem of claiming to have made the bar when you really haven’t: don’t do that

  • Be a good person producing good treasure “out of the abundance of the heart.”

  • How? By building your house (your life) on The Rock. IOW, base everything on Jesus.

Note: At verse 38 Jesus says, “Give and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over into your lap.” This picture of abundance is returned to in verse 45, but instead of receiving abundance now the “good person” is offering it in the form of high-bar deeds of loving kindness. And not only deeds, but speech. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”

Note (2): Jesus himself is speaking out of the abundance of his heart in this entire passage. Jesus, of course, speaks out of the abundance of his heart whenever he speaks. Words themselves are deeds. Words are fruit, good or bad.

In summary, Jesus uses this opportunity in talking to his disciples (this is early in his ministry and they are all quite new, just beginning to learn the true meaning of following Jesus). Jesus throws them into the deep end of the pool right at the start with his call for them to love their enemies.

He has already said that his people will be persecuted (and are blessed because of it!). Now he says, respond to the persecution with love. The call to love his so broad as to include every enemy. The old way was to love those who love you, give to those who give to you, etc. The Jesus Way is to love those who hate you. This love casts the widest possible net.

To love in this way is to be a Jesus follower, a disciple. “Your reward will be great in heaven,” Jesus says. Don’t look for it in the here and now, and above all don’t only love those who can reward you in the here and now (a brown-nosing kind of love). Isn’t God kind even to the ungrateful and evil? To be a Jesus follower is to have that kind of loving kindness for all others.

This kind of loving is elucidated more when Jesus adds, “Don’t judge or condemn people, but forgive them. Then there is a reciprocity offered her, something different than the “reward in heaven.” The like of what you give will be given to you in abundance. Give love, receive love. Give forgiveness, receive forgiveness.

This sort of dynamic will make you worthy to lead the blind (not just another blind person). Right now, that’s what Jesus is: a seeing person (seeing better than any man ever), giving guidance to those who have vision problems. And that’s what he wants his disciples to be. In other words: “everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher.” (v.40) They’re also going to be, like Jesus, people with good spiritual vision (spiritual understanding) leading people with faulty vision (faulty spiritual understanding).

But they’re not there yet. At this point, they are more like the person with the log in his eye trying to correct the person with the speck in his eye. The task before the disciples right now, as they sit at the feet of Jesus, is to learn about the log in their own eye and tend to that first. They are never going to be good trees producing good fruit if they don’t do that. They’ll be blind guides leading the blind, or hypocrites trying to fix everybody else when they themselves need the most fixing. Good fruit flows from what’s within (the abundance of the heart) and as we have seen, it is God who puts that abundance there.

Now I should note that Jesus doesn’t suggest that there is a learning period when you receive all this good stuff, and only then comes a practice-time where you go out and actually do the enemy-loving. Not exactly. Jesus calls on his disciples to love their enemies even now, and suggests that the abundance from God will come even as they do that, and out of that abundance, more and better loving might be expected. He pours in, and you pour out, but the first step is to receive your marching order and go do it. Love your enemies. Start now.

At verse 45 Jesus mentions “the good person.” The good person is the person who loves his enemy, who has mercy and forgives, who gives (expecting nothing in return), etc. The good person is the guide with good vision, the good tree producing good fruit. It comes from the abundance within, which itself comes from God.

Note: we who read this may or may not be disciples. Perhaps we hear all this and wonder if we should be. Some of us might back away. Others might be determined to follow, but they naturally wonder if they are going to be able. Jesus has said that God will equip us for the task (v.38) if we would only begin.

And now we come to the big finish (46-49). The ones who are able to do this are not merely the ones who say “Lord, Lord” to Jesus. To claim to be a follower without really following at all is obviously getting back to the idea of hypocrisy, which we saw at verse 42. But to come to Jesus, hear his teaching, and put them into action (loving their enemies, etc.) is like a man who builds a sturdy house that will not fall down in the storm. It’s built on a firm foundation. He dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock beneath. The teaching of Jesus that he is offering in this sermon is that “firm foundation.” To build on anything else is to build on impermanence. It will all be washed away in the storm.

So: listen to Jesus. Do what he says. Trust in the dynamic that Jesus lays out, with God’s abundant love coming to you as you love in the way that Jesus commands. All in all this a revolutionary directive. Enemy-love is going to have a remarkable leavening effect within the empire, but it can be suggested that we in our day have neglected this high calling. To read this sermon is to come back to foundational matters, the stuff on which all else is to be built (if it is to stand). You can’t emphasize this too much. When Jesus gathered is disciples for their first extended teaching-session, this was his message.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Last Weekend of the Big Wait

 It's the last weekend of America's "big wait." 

We wait for the inauguration of a new president, pretty certain that however many qualms we may have about the next four years, they can't be worse than the last four, right?

Trump is leaving office with his lowest approval rating ever, a metric that took an inelegant swan dive after the attack of Trump-loyal terrorists on the capitol on January 6. I cannot think of another president in my lifetime who left office under such a cloud of shame (Nixon excepted). And like Nixon he brought it all on himself.

It turns out that Trump's little personality quirk--the inability to admit a loss or failing--became the trait that torpedoed his chances of leaving office with any prospect of running a viable future campaign to regain the White House. Having turned the presidency into a performance space for his own self-aggrandizing fantasies in which he self-portrays as a kind of whining Colossus at the center and source of all that is good--striding from victory to victory whilst shaming the libs at every turn--defeat was never going to be admissible. Once you build a fantasy world and base your entire reputation on it, even monetize it, well then reality becomes unacceptable. Truth becomes utterly irrelevant.

Now that he is soon to enter his post-presidential period, a time when other post-presidents committed themselves to charity work or rediscovered their love of art or retired to the farm and tended the garden, Donald will no doubt spend his days in persistent fantasy-maintenance, which will require lots of lying (as usual) and the continued attempt to monetize his feverish outrage. You thought you knew self-justification? You ain't seen nothin' yet!

No, I don't expect the gentling of Donald in his old age. He will rave, and he will retain his loyal following, but he will quickly dwindle to nothing more than an old crank leading a horde of misfits. It will all seem rather sad in the end. But in the meantime, the damage he has done to the very nature of our political debate in America, as well as to the Republican Party and Conservatism generally (which he somehow managed to hijack and redefine), will have repercussions for years to come.