Sunday, January 5, 2020

Christ at the Apex

Grace Hall at Cabrini University in West Philadelphia received some of my special attention the other day as I was sent there with a co-worker to fix one of its many skylights. A triangular window in one of them had shattered and it needed to be replaced. The glass had been hanging there in its frame for several months as we waited for its specially constructed replacement to arrive. The space below had been cordoned off for safety reasons. After the installation, as I set about removing the barriers, the new window drew the attention of several professors and administrative staff who stared upward at the newly installed triangular piece of glass and marveled at how nice it looked. 

"Oh! I said. "What is really special about that piece of glass is that, if you stand on this particular piece of tile," I moved to the center of one of the floor tiles, "and look through the very top apex of the glass on any cloudless night of the year, you will be see the North Star!"

The men stared at me, unbelieving. Then one of them, dressed in a suit, exclaimed, "You are full of crap!" (Well, those weren't his exact words, but they are close enough to get the point across.) 

"Yes!" I admitted. "That was fake news! But in fact, if you had given me a bit of time to calculate which tile to stand on, that could be possible. The North Star never moves in the heavens you know!"

This gave me an idea for a senior project at this religiously affiliated school. Why not have the creative graduate make my quick fabrication into reality there within Grace Hall. They could do the work of determining where one would need to stand to see light from the North Star shining through that skylight glass and then paint a set of footprints onto the floor at that position. Or better yet, why not paint a portrait of Jesus on the inside of the skylight surface and footprints on the floor. Then, standing in those footprints and looking into the eyes of Jesus, one could always see the North Star in the clear night sky. That may serve to remind the skeptics of the unmovable light of Jesus which has served as the guiding light for society for all these centuries -- just as that polar star has served as the guiding light to generations of sailors.

In any event, the ability of that guy in the suit to quickly and emphatically pass judgement upon my hasty fabrication, restores my faith that these professors, teaching in the hallowed halls of higher education, can still detect fake news when they hear it!

Saturday, December 28, 2019

OK! So I'm a Bit Annoyed!

Customer Service
PO Bx 6550
Greenwood Village, CO 80155 

RE: Account #26403xxx (or maybe #7270xxx)

Dear Customer service,

This is regarding the bill that you have taken to sending me every month to tell me that I owe $94.40 on my account #26403xxxx. This, as you have explained, is for unreturned equipment that you have not received. As you can see from the attachments, and hopefully from your customer notes (if you keep such a thing), I returned my equipment per your instructions on 9/18/2019 at my local UPS store. They were the last custodians of the equipment and they documented it with the attached receipt. If the system that you set up with them to get this equipment returned broke down or if your receiving department is derelict in their duties, that is hardly my responsibility. So, you might understand why I resent all the time that I have had to spend on the phone and with customer service at the “greatest communication company in the world” trying to resolve this issue. As you might be able to read in my attached conversation notes on 11/14/19, your customer service person actually went off for several minutes to another department and came back with the welcome news that they had found the equipment and my account balance was being changed to zero. Unfortunately, your person did not document that breakthrough in corporate efficiency and the person I talked to on 12/14/19 could not find the records. Go figure!

 I did the due diligence of stopping again at the UPS Store today and talked with Dan who has been handling this complaint. He says you can gladly call him if you wish. 215-256-xxxx.

I will be keeping a copy of the stuff that I am sending you today so that next month, when you again send me the arrears notice, I can simply put these papers in the mail and resend them to you. 

For what it’s worth…

Ken Rutt

A Consumption Tax - (An Exercise in Voluntary Socialism)

Written November 5, 2012

Yesterday at church we were having a lesson on stewardship (care for) the earth. We were talking about the verse in Genesis 1:28 where it says God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” We were trying to understand what this should mean to us as we so uncaringly consume all this energy and resources. 

My brainstorm was that we, as a church, should impose a consumption tax on ourselves. For one week out of the year (at least to start) we should add up all our non-food purchases, gas, electric, merchandise, whatever we buy that week. Then we should take 10% of that total and pay it into a church fund. This money would then be given to some worthy cause that goes to help those who are in the unfortunate position of being exploited by our desire to have cheap goods and energy. The European Union has done this in principle by placing a high tax on each gallon of gasoline sold. It has caused a dramatic drop in consumption and a rise in energy awareness. I think if we as a church would voluntarily do this to ourselves, it could also make us more cautious (at least for that one week) about what we are consuming. It seems that no one ever starts to care about something until it costs them money. This voluntary “tax” would be a way of experiencing the pain of consumption but in a way that it allows us to make smart and helpful choices with that pain. Pain is, after all, supposed to help guide us away from the thing that is hurting us. If our over consumption is hurting us -- and hurting the world -- we need to feel that pain and do something about it. The pain of the smog-filled sky over Beijing is a pain that no American would stand for long if it was their hometown. But we don’t feel it from this side of the globe, so we don’t care about it. We need to start to care and come up with some good ways to channel that care into appropriate actions! Perhaps a tax on excessive consumption could serve as a starting point.

Note from December 28, 2019: This exercise is likely to become involuntary under the direction of a lot of the socialist candidates in today’s Democratic Party of Historical Amnesia. They would claim that this path will lead to a society of social equality and bliss. Why not experiment with it and see if all their promises are true. (Maybe we could prove all past experiments to be wrong. Maybe utopia does not necessarily lead to terror!) But at least this is an experiment that we can experience, learn from, and then stop. Not so with a government program of which Ronald Reagan said, "The nearest thing to eternal life we will ever see on this earth is a government program."

Digging Down Deeper

What is it that lies buried beneath the surface? What treasures lurk beneath our feet -- or inside the pages of a book? The scripture, Matthew 15: 21-39, had been part of our small group Bible study lead by my friend Paul. It is a collection of three distinct stories about Jesus’ ministry. What struck me for the first time was their interrelationship and the potential, underlying structure that they were intended to convey.

It reminded me of some things that Logan, Tyler’s brother was saying at the breakfast Saturday morning. He was bemoaning the literature course that he was that he is currently taking at Messiah College. He said that it is about screenplays from Shakespeare. The professor is always digging down into the minutia of the underlying thoughts and nuances that the film writer crafted into his films. “Take notice of the way there is a light streaming in through that distant window. See how you can barely make out the outlines of a hand reaching up into that light beam as if to arrest its progress across the room; to grasp desperately at that shaft of light? Think about how the film writer makes this an image to demonstrate the ethereal nature of truth! Blah, blah, blah…”  Logan, of course, being a young boy with a rather less romantic mind was having none of this and wrote it off as foolishness. He was finding no enduring significance in delving into the nuances of Shakespearean thought.

But after our breakfast discussion, I was able to piece together Logan’s thoughts about British literature and contrast it with the wonderful significance that we had found in digging deeply into the scriptures. They were things of far greater significance than some “shadowy hand in the background.” That is the true wonder, the true evidence of the divine inspiration of this sacred text. That is why there are literally libraries full of writing that have attempted to plumb its depth. Whole classes of people who tear it apart letter by letter, trying to squeeze out every detail of the story that our creator is trying to reveal to us. That is why we will be able to sit at the feet of our creator for 10,000 years and still find that it is as if the story telling has just begun. By contrast, when someone sits under my teaching for only 20 minutes, they are looking at their watch and getting ready to bolt out the door of the church to grab their Happy Meal at the local McDonald's. God’s discussion of the story of life and redemption is so much deeper and more compelling than ours that 10,000 years will only get Him through the preamble!

The first story was Matthew 15:22-28. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”

23 Jesus did not answer a word. So, his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”

24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

25 The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.

26 He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

27 “Yes, it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

28 Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.

What grabbed my attention in that first story, and made me start digging down into its nuances, was how uncharacteristic the action in this story was of Jesus. He was downright rude to this little Canaanite lady. He looked like a flaming racist calling this lady as a dog and refusing even to talk to her directly. It was only after the lady had thrust away his indelicate insinuations about her unworthiness and refused to go away that Jesus suddenly, almost explosively, relents, and pays her a compliment that elevates her above even his disciples and all the others around Him. “Oh woman! Great is your faith. Let it be to thee as you as you wish,” and her daughter was healed from that hour. Here this non-Jewish “dog” woman had shown such a high level of faith in Christ that she had pierced this wall of separation between the Jews and the Canaanites that Jesus appeared to be hiding behind.

But what is going on here? Why was Jesus shown as being so uncharacteristically rude to this poor woman? Why is he shown as a flaming racist in this story, but in the very next story, he is sitting indiscriminately with the whole motley crowd, healing everybody’s illnesses? This seemed to make no sense. How could I fit this story into the greater narrative of this chapter’s message about who Jesus is?  

Looking more closely at the women, we see that she addresses Jesus with the Hebrew title of Lord, Son of David. Furthermore, she knows the Jewish scripture as can be noted in her quoting from it in verse 27. But she is not Jewish. She is Canaanite. And Jesus makes it clear that he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. Therefore, she is not a candidate for his grace. The disciples, of course are encouraging him to act like this when they tell Him to send her away. Clearly, Jesus is allowing himself to be pent up inside this Jewish shell. But it appears that he is doing it for a reason. Like the gunpowder inside the shell of a firework getting ready to burst open its casing and display its blazing glory to the world, Jesus allows his glory to be ignited inside this shell so that he too can be seen bursting from its grip. Healing and God’s favors are no longer going to be a consequence of Jewish lineage. As Jesus bursts these bonds, he graciously proclaims that it is no longer lineage, but faith that has allowed her to find favor with God and have her daughter’s healing granted. You can just imagine the disciples standing there, shell-shocked at the bursting out of the grace of Jesus from the confines of traditional Jewish mindset. Healing comes by faith, not by lineage!

Now that Jesus has displayed his grace bursting out of the Jewish shell, he sets up a gathering on the hills above Galilee to show the magnificence of this grace. The next story in Mt 20: 29-31 shows Jesus mixing and mingling with the people; a great crowd of people. And everyone appears to be having access to the healing graces of Jesus. The disciples are not mentioned in this story. But everyone is praising the God of Israel and no one is trying to send anyone away or judge the worthiness of any individuals. These couple verses tell a delightful story that ranks right up there near the top of all joyous gatherings ever to have occurred on earth.

But then we move into the third story, and once again we see the disciples pulled back into the picture. Jesus seems to have a problem. He has compassion on these people but seems unable to meet their needs; needs that He had been meeting quite handily during three days of unstopped healing previously. But now He seems to need the disciple’s aid to feed these people. He asks them, “How many loaves do you have?”

After taking a quick inventory, they sheepishly tell Him that they have only about enough to scrap together three Happy Meals. But even though their resources are small, Jesus seems to need their pittance of an offering to be the substance that is going to be multiplied into enough for all the people to eat. And in contrast to the previous story, where it appears that it was just Jesus sitting there alone amid the thronging crowd, in this story it is the disciples who are doing the touching and giving. It is now they that are experiencing the joy of blessing the multitudes like Jesus had experienced in the previous story. And not only do they see that they are able to meet the needs of everyone, but there is even food left over to be gathered up into seven more baskets of leftovers.

It is impossible to move away from this last story without comparing it to a parallel story that we find in 2 Kings 4:1. Here, we see a widow, whose sons are going to be taken from her to pay for her debts, crying out to Elisha for his help. Elisha puts almost the exact same question to her as Jesus does to his disciples, “What do you have in your house?” The pittance of an offering she identifies, only a small jar of oil, turns out to hold a huge quantity, or at least produce a huge quantity of oil in the hands of the Lord’s prophet Elisha. It pours forth enough oil to fill every jar in the whole neighborhood! Not only was there enough oil to cover the debts on her sons which was her original request after all, but there is also enough to live on with what was left over. This is life and life abundantly, just as we can see the bread given out and overflowing to the 4,000 in the previous story.

But now stepping back from the individual stories and looking at the combined flow of the narrative, a more beautiful picture emerges that draws all these stories together into a sweeping panorama of God’s intended plan of redemption. Jesus may have come to the Jews, but he is going to burst out from that narrow, nationalistic calling to fulfill God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3 where God says that “all the peoples of the earth will be blessed through you.” And then we see the glory of that ministry of Jesus as he ministers to all the people scattered upon the hillside. But his time of personally meeting their needs was limited, though his compassion was not. So, in the third story, we see him passing on the ministry to his disciples and ultimately to the church. They will now become the hands and the feet of Jesus. They will be his agents moving among the crowds. Now we can answer the question that stumped us when we looked at the first story: “Why was Jesus made to look like such a racist?” It is now easy to answer. He is not a race-ist; he is a grace-ist!

So here we see yet another illustration of the deep layers of meaning that can be pulled from the scripture that make it of infinitely greater impact and interest than can be gained by digging down into any Shakespearean screenplay. His plays may have been inspired by the genius of one of the greatest literary minds ever to grace the planet. But the writings of the Bible were inspired by God; the creator of the planet and all the inhabitants on it! The Word of God begs us to just dig down deeper! We can never out dig God!

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Expanding the Christmas Narrative- The Highest Heavens

A shining band of angels suddenly broke through the crisp, night air over a band of Judean shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night. "Glory to God in the Highest Heavens and peace to man on whom His favor rests," they sing in exalted harmony. Now I am sure that the shepherds gave nary a second thought to the phrase, the "Highest Heavens", and neither did I -- until this year. But this time on hearing it, it grabbed my attention. What exactly was meant by the Highest Heavens. You can go to your commentaries and research this and get some philosophical explanation. But what follows is a bit less philosophical and places a more scientific spin on the phrase. Be ready to be amazed by the worlds of the Cepheid Variable stars!

It was not that long ago that the astronomers of the world were totally unsure of how big a place the universe actually was. The one group thought that the universe was only as big as the Milky Way Galaxy, the galaxy that we call home. Others thought the universe stretched beyond to some greater distance, but no one could say for sure how far. So the battle raged between these camps. Existing telescopes and technology were insufficient to provide a convincing reconciliation to the question. 

Then someone turned their attention to a certain category of stars that were seen to pulsate; not like "twinkle, twinkle little star," but having pulsations lasting days or weeks between the peaks of brightness. It turns out that the great predominance of stars are extremely stable over time and change little in size and brightness. For these normal stars, the crush of gravity bears down against the explosive force of their nuclear fusion reaction and keeps the ball of plasma contained as a stable, shining orb. But on rare occasions, stars will possess just the right amount of mass so that the exploding ball of gas can overcome gravity's crush, allowing the ball to grow in size. But as it grows, the fusion reaction decreases due to its greater volume and lower density. This lowers the explosive force inside and gravity starts to crush the ball again. But then the tight compression increases the fusion and the ball puffs out once more. And on and on it goes, creating a pulsing stellar mass; a Cepheid Variable star. 

As one might imagine, these stellar anomalies are not difficult to spot and to study. They are very noticeable, like a lighthouse beacon on a rocky outcrop drawing the attention of the ship's pilots. But something else makes them an even more intriguing part of the Highest Heavens story. It has been determined that there is a relationship between the actual luminosity of these stars and their frequency of pulsation. Since it is a fairly simple matter to chart their pulsation period, it is therefore possible to know how bright these stars actually are. But the apparent brightness (how bright they appear to us from our observation point on earth) is decreased by the distance that the star is from the earth. So with this in mind, if we measure the period, we can determine the actual brightness. And then measuring the apparent brightness and comparing it with the actual brightness allows us to figure out the distance these Cepheid Variable stars are from earth! We finally have a "cosmic yardstick" that allows us to determine just how far these stars are from us. 

And wonder of wonders -- these stars are often not even housed within our Milky Way galaxy! They are actually within galaxies that are far, far removed from us! The universe is actually much, much bigger than we had previously thought and populated with a multitude of galaxies as big as or bigger than the Milky Way. These stars have extended our understanding of how big the universe is to the same expansive understanding that the angels were sharing with the shepherds on that Judean hillside. The Cepheid Variables have shown us the Highest Heavens; realms that we have only recently been able to discover by scientific research. Which makes the end part of the angels greeting that much more significant. God -- who has made not just our own galaxy, but all of the millions of galaxies that exist beyond our own -- had sent this angel band from the Highest Heavens to share the Good News that His favor rested upon us. And all the Cepheid Variables pulsated with joy!

*** For more mind-blowing information on the wonders of God's heavens get the Great Courses Series called "The Life and Death of the Stars" by Keivan G. Stassan. This information is from lecture 17. ***

What did God Want?

The other Sunday Pastor Steve said that heaven was not going to be the place where people get everything that they want. It is a place where God gets everything that He wants. That helped me to re-frame my image of heaven somewhat. Heaven is not about us or the gold or the harps or the crowns. It is about Him.

So, one might ask, what it is that God wants? Obviously, He is omni-everything, so what could He possibly want? Apparently, there is one thing an all-wise, all-knowing God can lack. And that something is someone with whom to fellowship and share that wisdom! God appears to want uncoerced fellowship. He wants people that are so interested -- so fascinated -- by who He is, that they want nothing more than to sit at His feet and drink in His wisdom.

That is indeed the image that comes to mind when one looks at the activities taking place in the Garden of Eden before the fall. God would walk in the Garden in the cool of the day. He would always find Adam and Eve there, just waiting longingly for Him to show up. But now, in the moments after this couple takes a bite out of that alluring apple, we see Him needing to call out, "Where are you?" That beautiful, uncoerced fellowship He was used to enjoying had broken down to a point that mankind now needed to be called to God's side.

And so we see the beginning of the battle between the dueling question marks. The question mark in "Where are you?" in Genesis 3:9 asked by God stands as the second question mark in the Bible. The first one appears just 8 verses earlier and was asked by Satan; "Did God say?" Suddenly, between those questions, we see mankind going from eagerly seeking after the wisdom and goodness of their creator to aggressively seeking to justify their unbelief in His commands. The peaceful walks in the cool of the day were replaced by the hot pursuit of their own passions. 

And yet the tempestuous behavior of the crown of God's creation did not knock Him from His goal of seeking uncoerced fellowship with them. Patriarchs, judges, kings and prophets were sent to call the rebellious people back to Him. And finally He sent His one and only Son. No coercion -- only opportunities to answer the gentle call resonating on the cool, evening air. "Where are you?"

He Died in Our Parking Lot

I used to make a habit of carrying an extra $20 in the secret compartment in my wallet just in case I saw someone who needed it. And that Sunday morning I saw one of those people. He was sitting in his white van, nearly buried in what turned out to be all the accumulated dentritus of his life. I knocked on the window and he tentatively cranked it down far enough that we could talk. I told him that I had something for him and passed the folded bill through the opening. He pushed it back saying that he didn't need it. I said that was OK but that he should take it and give it to someone who might need it. Reluctantly, he laid in among the clutter on the front seat. 

It had been a short conversation, but one that commenced anew the next Sunday when I was again taking my breakfast at that same McDonalds down the street from our church. Karen was on the worship team, so I would drop her off early for practice and then pick up a healthy, McGriddle sandwich for $1.39. Again, I noticed the white van parked in the same parking spot. This time when I knocked on the window, he eagerly rolled it down. I asked if I could buy him coffee. He pushed aside the enveloping litter, crawled out of the van and walked in to the counter with me. 

And so began a long series of Sunday morning meetings with Randy. He turned out to be a very interesting individual, enthusiastically talking about his interest in gardening and his deep insights into the energy industry. He was well read and listened to radio talk shows all the time. He was quite a conversationalist. He lived in his van in the adjacent parking lot beside the Weis Market. Every Sunday when I showed up, Randy would be there in the same parking spot waiting for me. This went on for more than a year. He never shared many intimate details about his past life or his current situation. He was just glad to have someone show genuine interest in him. And I found that to be an easy need to fill. 

Then one day we had some vandalism at the church. Apparently, some of the local kids, wandering in the woods behind the church, were using rocks to target the windows of the church building. As I sat munching on my McGriddle with Randy, an idea occurred to me. Why not ask Randy to move his "residence" from the Weis parking lot to our parking lot. I told him that if he did that, he could keep an eye on our church and hopefully prevent the vandalism.

The idea must have resonated with him. By the time I walked out of church that day at noontime, the white van was parked at the far corner of the lot. I told the apprehensive neighbors that he had our permission to park there and that he was harmless. And I told him he was welcome to come in and attend our services. He never did. But the vandalism stopped and our church members made friends with him. Even the local police checked in with him time to time. I think he was able to feel appreciated and welcome in a way that he had not felt before. And that was really all he was looking for in life.

Randy stayed in that van in the far corner of the lot for more than a year. He died in that van one night. The police found him unresponsive behind the wheel. It had been a peaceful death. I am sure that is how Randy would have wanted it -- parked on the only plot of land he was able to call home.