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Showing posts from 2013

Advent, Joseph, Love, God

Betrayal is the worst, and as far as Joseph knew, Mary had betrayed him. His fiance was pregnant. He had brutal, legal options available to him in this patriarchal society they lived in, yet he chose the least likely one, the one of generosity and love.

As Matthew tells it,
18 This is how Jesus the Messiah was born. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. But before the marriage took place, while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph, her fiancé, was a good man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement quietly. Matthew 1 He didn't choose his rights, he chose peace. God chose something greater though. God had not only chosen Mary, he had chosen Joseph as well. Matthew continues the story,
20 As he considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. “Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was…

Why is the church not attractive to men?

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I just finished listening to the 2nd Sunday of Advent message from Pastor Brian Zahnd in St. Joseph Missouri. He was not speaking about the shortage of men in church. But what he spoke on got me thinking about the question of this post, and the hand wringing it inspires in some church leaders. He spoke on Daniel's vision of the goat who would dominate the world, Alexander the Great, and the son of man who would prevail, Jesus, the lamb who was slain but lives, as seen in John's revelation. The contrasts which Zahnd highlighted between Alexander and Jesus were striking, but on in particular stood out to me. During one of Alexander's conquests he crucified 2000 enemies. Jesus, however, announced his kingdom, proclaimed its victory, by letting his enemies crucify him. Alexander's backdrop as a Greek was Homer's Iliad and it's violent hero Achilles. Jesus's backdrop as a Jew was Isaiah's vision of a king who suffered and died and was rejected to save his pe…

Lincoln's legacy - Red states receive blue cash

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This article is depressing, Was the Gettysburg Address a mistake? at Politico by Chuck Thompson who writes strongly in hope of letting the southern Tea Party states secede. He's pretty much calling their bluff and hypocrisy. In general, the "liberal, socialist" states pay more in taxes than they receive back from the feds, and the southern states receive more than they pay. See graphic here and article here.

 Thompson writes in the article concerning the South's response to Reconstruction was "... casting itself as the woebegone victim through typically radical politics (obstructionist), religion (evangelical), race relations (segregated), education (under-funded) and business (anti-labor), has done its level best ever since to remain an emotionally estranged partner who nevertheless sticks around for the financial support."

The Northern liberals keep donating their money to help the poor in other states including those in states who need assistance. Thos…

Open-handed - a posture personally, theologically, and politically

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Last night a friend from church asked me what side I fall on politically. Old labels carry too much baggage though. I know who I have been and I know who I want to be. I want to be someone who loves God and loves my neighbors. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, when Jesus explains through a story who
The Parable of the Good Samaritan by Jan Wijnants (1670) shows the Good Samaritan tending the injured man. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)  qualifies as a "neighbor" (anyone in need) and what it looks like to love them (generosity of time, space and money), I see an all encompassing philosophy of life. It's a philosophy that is unhindered by artificial social barriers. It sees unity with all who bleed. No one in need is excluded. All are included. The examples of villains in Jesus' story are those who cannot be bothered with the inconvenience of aid, who cannot forget past grievances, who transfer the faults of a group onto the individual, who delight in justice instead of m…

Pastors who practice conspicuous consumption

I'm not naming any names because this is a recurring issue for pastors who come into wealth. They start living wealthy and proudly. Then they get called out on it and respond angrily. "God has blessed me. You're just jealous. Who gave you the right to judge me?"

I'd like to defend the multitudes.

The "haters" are simply responding to the juxtaposition between the Jesus they read about and the lifestyle He condemns. These people are not haters, but brothers and sisters, crooked like all of us. But even Balaam learned from his talking ass.


Matthew 6:19-21 The Voice (VOICE) 19 Some people store up treasures in their homes here on earth.This is a shortsighted practice—don’t undertake it. Moths and rust will eat up any treasure you may store here. Thieves may break into your homes and steal your precious trinkets.20 Instead, put up your treasures in heaven where moths do not attack, where rust does not corrode, and where thieves are barred at the door. 21 For…

Trying to be a lover and not a hater

I think, because I don't know for sure, that a posture of love presents as civil, kind, humble, generous and inclusive. For whatever reasons, especially in my defenses of fundamentalist christianity, more so online than in real life, I have not presented myself in these ways. I might have thought was behaving out of love, but I wasn't.

One of the slogans in evangelical christianity is that we become what we worship. What was I worshiping that was hard, lacking grace, ignoring other people's stories that didn't align with the big picture I believed? Words on a page? Elaborate assemblages of those words? Safety? Worshiping the Word of God, a person, deity in the flesh, complicated and dangerous is so much more difficult. It's the simplicity of it that makes it difficult. Living by two rules, love Him and love my neighbor, is too open ended.

I wanted to title this post, "trying to not be an asshole," but it might not be very loving to some of my neighbors wh…

Another low impact New England house idea - clay slip and wood chips

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As I noted previously, New England farmers raised more rocks than crops over the past few centuries. The last ice age scraped all the dirt off the granite and formed Long Island. However, after the farmers gave up on New England, and more efficient fuel sources replaced wood, New England's forests have returned in abundance. My previous proposal for a New England gabion house uses the abundant rocks, but needs spray foam, which is not a low impact product, to provide insulation. Lately, I've been reading about slip-chip walls. Basically, wood chips are coated in clay and lightly stuffed into a wall form then allowed to dry out. As in many low impact homes, the thicker the walls, the better. Some builders use reed mats as permanent forms. Other builders have used a double wall of (free) pallets for a straw-clay infill on the Pine Ridge reservation. Straw and wood chips trap air which increases the insulation properties of the in-fill. Processed hemp will work as well, but, fool…

Head Start: an expensive program with few short term results but great long term results

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During the current government shutdown of 2013, one of the programs that is currently stopped is the early childhood education program started 50 years ago called Head Start. Originally, it was believed that earlier education would improve the IQ of those children who participated. This did not happen. In fact, not much happens. The Department of Health and Human Services itself found very little difference between third graders who were or were not in Head Start when they were three and four year olds. This finding is trumpeted by conservative essayists at places like the Heritage Foundation. However, when the subjects are revisited every 10 years for 30 years, a different story emerges. While Head Start cannot increase a child's IQ, it can introduce the practice of self-control, something not every child is born with yet every child can learn. Here is a big quote from the previously linked article.
Surprisingly — or perhaps not, if you think about it — the study found that the a…

New England gabion house idea

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Although I love straw bale houses, New England is not a big wheat producing region with lots of waste straw to bale. I'm not certain, but I think straw would have to be imported for a Connecticut house. It's a great insulating "brick" to build with, but I've been pondering what is local, and abundant and affordable to build with?

I also love earth bricks, but our soil typically needs to have clay supplemented in these parts, to make them. I have seen a Canadian rammed earth house built in a sandwich around a foam core. Rammed earth has the same needs as earth bricks and earth bags as well.

I live in Connecticut, where farms are very good at raising rocks. Literally, for centuries, New England farmers have to clear new rocks out of their fields, heaved up each winter by the freeze thaw cycle. Stone walls are everywhere around here. Like many things in these parts, glaciers get the blame. Nevertheless, stone is an abundant natural resource. Quarries are also a…

book response: Against the Gods by John D. Currid (2013)

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When it comes to understanding the Bible, context is extremely important. Dr. Currid has provided a very distilled, but excellent introduction to the ancient Near Eastern (ANE) world that the Jewish scriptures emerged from in his book Against the Gods: The Polemical Theology of the Old Testament. Archaeologists have done tremendous work and translators, who cannot keep up with all the discoveries, are making the context better and better. Dr. Currid focuses the book on a few key stories from Genesis and Exodus. He has a chapter on the creation account, Noah's flood, Joseph and the false rape accusation, Moses and his infant escape, Moses's escape from Egypt, God's name "I am that I am", Moses's miracle rod, the parting of the Red Sea and seemingly plagiarism of Canaanite Psalms.

The book description on the back of the book is enlightening for what leading question it does not answer. "Did the Old Testament writers borrow ideas from their pagan neighbors…

book response: Is God a Moral Monster by Paul Copan (2011)

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During my Haiti trip I brought my Kindle and read in transit and in down time. After finishing Tom Sawyer, I read a book I bought on sale at Amazon, Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God by Paul Copan, a Christian philospher and apologist who teaches in Florida. He uses the criticisms of the Bible by the Four Horsemen of New Atheism as the topics for his chapters. I found the book helpful but uneven. Some things were really good, but not everything. I have many highlights which I will be interacting with in this book response.

The following assertion is an example of the "not-so good" because it is reductionist.
The Theme of the Pentateuch: Abraham’s Faith and Moses’s Unbelief Biblical scholars have pointed out that the theme of faith holds the Pentateuch (Genesis–Deuteronomy) together at its seams. The two major players are Abraham and Moses. Abraham is the positive example of faith, while Moses is the negative example. Abraham had faith without th…

my spiritual lessons from Haiti July 2013

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We arrived in Haiti on Saturday, July 13th, and went to church on Sunday, July 14th. I took a brief video clip in church so I could remember it. Here it is.


Before the earthquake, there was a concrete block building here, that was also a school. It partially collapsed and killed a few people. Although the church leases the property, they took care of it, and removed all that concrete and rebar down to the cement pad, and they built this 2x4, tarp, and tin roof structure. They have met here for three and a half years since the quake. However, the property owner decided that he no longer wanted to rent to the church. Our team had to dismantle the church. Every piece of lumber and tin was saved. We pulled so many nails out of the lumber. No matter how bent, they were all saved to use again, when a new property becomes available.
This was service of closure. The congregation worshiped God out of gratefulness for what he has done and in anticipation for what he will do. This is a congrega…

book response: Me, Myself, and Bob by Phil Vischer (2007)

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When my kids were little, I loved watching Veggietales videos with them. Phil Vischer created them. His company, Big Idea, produced great stories with great visuals about Jesus, God and the Bible, told through the lives of armless, legless vegetables with big eyes, crazy voices, and silly songs. This book is the story of how this extremely popular show and quickly growing business collapsed into bankruptcy, leaving Phil with his God, his family, and his broken dreams. Yet it is a story with hope and redemption and restoration with the same God, same family, and a bigger dream.

The Veggietales videos promised and delivered a half hour of entertaining morality tales. This book delivered in one sitting of about four hours a story that had me laughing out loud, angry at the bad guys, shaking my head at the stupid things, misting over in the hard parts, and choking up at the end. Vischer starts with his childhood, showing how God prepared him for movie making and story telling and new tec…

book response: CMYK by Justin McRoberts

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The other morning, I did something rather unusual. I stayed in bed and read. Justin McRobert's book, CMYK, kept me in bed. I didn't want to miss out on the conversations Justin was sharing with me. This book is a series of letters written in response to the vagaries of life. McRobert's writes as a pastor, husband, son, father, friend, musician, and disciple of Jesus Christ. His words do not come from a mountaintop, but from alongside, which is very encouraging. Although these letters are not written to me, all of them speak to something in my life. I received this encouragement for someone else.

"Your story is not a story of failure; it is a story of boundless mercy. It is a story about getting second chances seven times, and then seventy times that. While some would suggest your life’s process was marked by failure, I believe that it is characterized by grace."

The perspective of grace changes everything. McRoberts is not only graceful, but humorously self-depr…

my trip to Haiti in July 2013 part 1

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I've been back for almost a week since my trip to Haiti with my daughter through the organization Mission E4. The picture above is before their front gate at the girls' orphanage in Cassagne, Leogane.
This is a picture of us from day 3 at the outdoor dining area of the guest house in Gran Goave.


Our team stayed at a beach house in Gran Goave owned by Mission of Hope International. There is another group named Mission of Hope Haiti. They also do great work in Haiti, but we didn't stay with them. They do not have air conditioning, you need regular electricity for that, but I was able to walk right out the back gate, down the boat ramp and into the Gulf of Gonave every afternoon for some resuscitation after a hot work day.
I don't know, nor did I want to know, how (un)clean the water is. It was very murky, but so refreshing. On the horizon, we could barely see Gonave Island. Mission of Hope has a small motorboat that they take out to the island to do ministry and relief …

John's summer reading 2013

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Summer time is normally a time for lighter reading, books that finish quickly. For many people, these books are usually fiction. For me, however, I am interested in historical narratives of natural disasters. Here are the four I've read so far.

Sudden Sea: The Great Hurricane of 1938 by R. A. Scotti is fast paced and well written. Scotti is a fomer journalist for the Providence Journal and is intimately familiar with the coastline and people of Rhode Island which lost the greatest number of lives. My section of southeastern Connecticut was also hit hard in 1938, and I appreciated her local perspective. Her collection of anecdotes helps us remember this event changed the lives of families and not just impersonal towns.

Category 5: The Story of Camille, Lessons Unlearned from America's most violent hurricane by Judith A. Howard and Prof. Ernest Zebrowski, Jr. includes some more science behind these storms. It was published soon after Katrina repeated it's path of destruction. …

My toast at Elena's graduation party

Today, we are celebrating the successful completion of twelve years of schooling by Miss Elena Umland. She has had the privilege of enjoying most of her education tutored mostly by her mother. Her education fit her well, as she drew most of it's lessons from literature. She was born to reading parents, educated in a literary curriculum, yet still finds pleasure in books.

But she's not just a bookworm. She's an artist as well. She dances. She plays two instruments. She sings. She acts. She pursues the creative life, seeking to contribute to the world's beauty. Yet, there's this deep, deep well inside her that has only just been tapped. She was born a mature soul.

Before she was even a year old, Elena could give a "thousand yard stare." Sixteen years ago our friends at church would come up to us and try to get a baby fix, but Elena would not play their game. Tickles from strangers? "No thank you," her stare would say. If she wasn't into you, s…

DOMA is a don'a

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The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) revealed today their majority opinion on the federal Defense of Marriage Act, signed by President Clinton in 1996. In particular, section 3 of the act prevented homosexual spouses from receiving federal marriage benefits. The SCOTUS found this section violated the 5th Amendment's Due Process clause, which made the law unconstitutional. I support the effect, although I don't understand the legal methodology, see the court's opinion in PDF.

I support this ruling because I'm proudest of my country when it helps minorities. I'm also terribly ashamed of it when it hurts minorities, see yesterday's ruling on the Voting Rights Act.

I believe, and I used to believe differently about this, that wanting my gay neighbors, friends, and co-workers to be treated fairly under the rule of law, to not have any fewer benefits than I do for no crime on their part, aligns with Jesus' Golden Rule. Treating others the way I want to…

book response: The Quest for the Creed by Longenecker (2012)

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Sometimes, when I drive to work, that familiar route is driven by my subconscious auto-pilot and I'm not even aware of the scenery. It's as if I teleported from my house. The same thing happens to those of us who use the Lord's Prayer or the Apostles Creed regularly. These are gifts to aid us in worship, to get us from earth to heaven, but the familiarity with them actually hinders their utility. Father Dwight Longenecker invites us to look at the scenery in the Apostles Creed behind every phrase. The tour guide makes the difference on the tour, and he is a rambunctious, hilarious docent who brings the creed to life.

How can you not expect a fun ride from a guy who graduated from Bob Jones University then became an Anglican priest and is now a Roman Catholic priest. He knows how to make fun of himself and fellow believers and church while keeping all his love and devotion to God. I enjoyed his presentation of church history as it relates to one line of the creed, "...…

book response: Stalin's Curse by Gellately (2013)

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When I was in high school in the late 1980's, I worried about Mutual Assured Destruction (M.A.D.). The commies in Reagan's 2nd term were the bogeymen, and  our very real fear had to do with our proximity to a nuclear attack submarine base in Groton, Conn. I trace my fascination with Russia back to an elective class I took when I was a high school senior called Modern Russia. I keep coming back to this fascinating nation. It's history is full of horribleness. Stalin contribution to the horror is unmatched. His paranoid war against his own people, in pursuit of a utopian communist world, cost as many Russian lives as his war with Nazi Germany, 25 million each. It's this body count in World War 2 that has also attracted my attention.

As I've read more World War 2 history, and as Russian archives have been opened to Western historians, my understanding with the war's center of gravity has shifted east. The Nazi Reich's defeat came on the Russian front. The war…